45 min

The Federal Theatre Project Unsung History

    • History

Between 1935 and 1939, the Federal Theatre Project, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), employed over 12,000 actors and put on over 1200 productions in 29 states. Led by Hallie Flanagan, the FTP, using only a small fraction of the total WPA budget, employed theater professionals; entertained audiences, some two-third of whom had never attended theater before the FTP; and helped launch the careers of people like director Orson Welles and playwright Arthur Miller. However, despite its success and small budget, the Federal Theater Project, was controversial, both for its supposed communist affiliations and because of the perception that theater wasn’t worthy of receiving federal tax dollars. After four years, Congress axed the project, immediately putting out of work 8,000 people across the country. 

Joining me in this episode to tell us more about the Federal Theatre Project is Dr. Paul Gagliardi, Teaching Associate Professor at Marquette University and author of All Play and No Work: American Work Ideals and the Comic Plays of the Federal Theatre Project.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The mid-episode music is “The Broadway blues,” composed by Carey Morgan, with lyrics by Arthur Swanstrom; this performance was recorded by vocalist Aileen Stanley and conductor Rosario Bourdon on August 10, 1920, in Camden, New Jersey; the recording is in the public domain and is available via the Library of Congress National Jukebox. The episode image is a photograph from A Sailor's Ballad, performed at St. James Theatre in the 1930s as part of the Federal Theatre Project; the image is available in the Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection.

Additional Sources:
“Hallie Flanagan Davis,” Vassar Encyclopedia.“The WPA Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939,” Library of Congress.“The Works Progress Administration,” PBS American Experience.“The Federal Theatre: Revisiting the Dream [video],” The Living New Deal, October 17, 2022."Voodoo Macbeth - Trailer and Interview - Orson Welles - 1936 [video],” Shakespeare Network, posted on YouTube on May 2, 2021.“The Play That Electrified Harlem,” by Wendy Smith; originally published in the January-February 1996 issue of Civilization magazine and reposted on the Library of Congress website.“Federal Theatre Project,” by Paula Becker, HistoryLink, October 30, 2002.“The theater project that sparked a congressional probe — and culture war,” by James Shapiro, The Washington Post, May 26, 2024.“F.D.R.'S WPA FTP; At Moderate Box Office Prices the TheatreGoing Public Is Inexhaustible,” by Brooks Atkinson, The New York TImes, May 28, 1939.


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Between 1935 and 1939, the Federal Theatre Project, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), employed over 12,000 actors and put on over 1200 productions in 29 states. Led by Hallie Flanagan, the FTP, using only a small fraction of the total WPA budget, employed theater professionals; entertained audiences, some two-third of whom had never attended theater before the FTP; and helped launch the careers of people like director Orson Welles and playwright Arthur Miller. However, despite its success and small budget, the Federal Theater Project, was controversial, both for its supposed communist affiliations and because of the perception that theater wasn’t worthy of receiving federal tax dollars. After four years, Congress axed the project, immediately putting out of work 8,000 people across the country. 

Joining me in this episode to tell us more about the Federal Theatre Project is Dr. Paul Gagliardi, Teaching Associate Professor at Marquette University and author of All Play and No Work: American Work Ideals and the Comic Plays of the Federal Theatre Project.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The mid-episode music is “The Broadway blues,” composed by Carey Morgan, with lyrics by Arthur Swanstrom; this performance was recorded by vocalist Aileen Stanley and conductor Rosario Bourdon on August 10, 1920, in Camden, New Jersey; the recording is in the public domain and is available via the Library of Congress National Jukebox. The episode image is a photograph from A Sailor's Ballad, performed at St. James Theatre in the 1930s as part of the Federal Theatre Project; the image is available in the Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection.

Additional Sources:
“Hallie Flanagan Davis,” Vassar Encyclopedia.“The WPA Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939,” Library of Congress.“The Works Progress Administration,” PBS American Experience.“The Federal Theatre: Revisiting the Dream [video],” The Living New Deal, October 17, 2022."Voodoo Macbeth - Trailer and Interview - Orson Welles - 1936 [video],” Shakespeare Network, posted on YouTube on May 2, 2021.“The Play That Electrified Harlem,” by Wendy Smith; originally published in the January-February 1996 issue of Civilization magazine and reposted on the Library of Congress website.“Federal Theatre Project,” by Paula Becker, HistoryLink, October 30, 2002.“The theater project that sparked a congressional probe — and culture war,” by James Shapiro, The Washington Post, May 26, 2024.“F.D.R.'S WPA FTP; At Moderate Box Office Prices the TheatreGoing Public Is Inexhaustible,” by Brooks Atkinson, The New York TImes, May 28, 1939.


Advertising Inquiries: https://redcircle.com/brands

45 min

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