The Federal Theatre Project

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Millions of people across the country roamed the streets in search of jobs, hoping to find some way to get the money they needed to feed their families. The Great Depression in the United States during the 1930s affected not only those who worked in jobs requiring physical labor, but those involved with theatre and the arts as well. The Federal Theatre Project was one of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)'s projects that was created to help deal with the economic turmoil caused by the Great Depression. Thousands of artists, whether it was in the form of writing, music, or performing arts, were put out of work. The Federal Arts projects were created to reinstate jobs for unemployed artists as well as create displays of art for the public. "The Federal Theatre Project, directed by the former head of the Vassar College Experimental Theatre, Hallie Flanagan, was the most important, the most controversial, and hence, the shortest-lived of the Federal One Projects" (Gerdes, 155). Though the Federal Theatre Project caused a large amount of controversy among people in America, it was very important because during its short life it supplied jobs for many people working in the arts and it brought free theatre to America.

By 1935, there were almost fifteen million unemployed people in the United States, about forty thousand of those being people who were formerly employed in theatre. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps was created to give urban men jobs doing hard physical labor such as building roads or buildings. The WPA created the Federal One Projects, or Federal Arts Projects, in order to create job opportunities for those involved with art instead of physical work. The Federal Theatre Project was one of the larger of the projects, giving ten thousand actors minimum wage jobs. Not only did it effect the actors involved, it effected the general public by attracting millions of people from across country to the public performances. The Federal Theatre Project supplied jobs directly related to the stage such as actors and directors, but it also supplied other jobs related to theatre such as set and lighting design, choreographers, voice instructors, costume designers, and makeup artists.

The Federal Theatre Project first began under the Emergency Relief Act of April, 1935, under the direction of Hallie Flanagan. Harry Hopkins, one of the founders of the program, hired Flanagan to direct the project because he had heard about the success of her current project at that time, the experimental theatre at Vassar College. "The Federal Theatre Project director was dedicated to building a truly national theatre, one that would provide food for thought as well as for the actors stomachs" (Gerdes, 155). Flanagan was a very dedicated director who wanted to do more than simply help give jobs to the many unemployed theatre people in America. Her intense passion for the theatre caused her to care deeply about the project's success, not only in lowering the intense unemployment numbers, but in bringing wonderful shows to the American public.

Along with the financial problem associated with Elmer Rice, there were many aspects of the Federal Theatre Project which sparked controversy and debate in society. One of these aspects was one of the units of the project, the Negro Theatre Project. Before this project, very few negroes were allowed any type of place in theatre or jobs relating to theatre. White unions and the prejudice against African Americans during this decade prevented most negroes from even stepping foot into a theatre, let alone perform or be involved with an actual show.

The creation of The Negro Theatre Project, sometimes referred to as "negro units", changed the restrictions on African American relation with the theatre. Rose McClendon, a well-known black actress, and John Houseman, a famous theatre producer, headed this project and truly believed that it would be accepted by society. Most of the population received...
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