Federal Theatre Project photograph collection, 1936-1939, #C0205

Dublin Core


Federal Theatre Project photograph collection, 1936-1939, #C0205


Organized in 1935, The Federal Theatre Project flourished as the first and only federally sponsored and subsidized theater program in the United States until its end in 1939. The FTP was a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided employment for large numbers of artists, writers, and performers during the Great Depression (1929-1939). Directed by Hallie Flanagan (1880-1969), the FTP provided employment for theatrical professionals throughout the United States during the Great Depression. Actors, playwrights, scene designers and builders, seamstresses, lighting experts, ushers, box-office men, and stagehands all found employment through the FTP.

Like many New Deal programs implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Federal Theatre Project was intended not only to benefit its participants, but also to enrich the condition of the nation. Theater was a distinguished part of American popular culture, but the economic downturn of the Depression had bankrupted the entire theater industry. As the theater houses closed down, the nation was left without an outlet for theatrical creativity. According to Hallie Flanagan, this hurt the nation as much as it hurt the theater industry - indeed, the nation was their audience and the theater could provide entertaining distractions from the effects of Depression as well as offer commentary on present conditions.

But it was not enough to simply return to the pre-Depression concept of theater. In the first meeting with her staff Flanagan expressed her willingness to follow Roosevelt's experimental approach to public policy: "In a changing world, a world of experiment, the stage too must experiment - with ideas, with the psychological relationship of men and women, with color and light.... The theatre must grow up."

Flanagan pursued her ideal of developing the relationship between the Federal Theatre and the federal government: "Any theatre sponsored by the government of the United States should do no plays of a cheap, trivial, outworn or vulgar nature, but only such plays as the Government can stand proudly behind in a planned theatrical program, national in scope, regional in emphasis, and American in democratic attitude." To Flanagan, it was imperative that this new theater should be progressive and experimental, yet within a patriotic and informative framework.

The productions that best embodied Flanagan's views on theater were the Living Newspapers. These hard-hitting, poignant plays dealt with contemporary factual material, dramatizing issues such as housing, agriculture, labor, and destitution. Always ending on an upbeat note, Living Newspapers underscored the importance of hard work and morality in overcoming difficult times. Living Newspaper titles include: Triple A Plowed Under, Injunction Granted, One Third of a Nation, and Spirochete.

The Federal Theatre was noted for employing black Americans at a time when the Federal Government did not actively protect the rights of minorities. The "Negro Theater" (as it was called in the 1930s) was an established industry before the Depression, and it greatly contributed to the success of the Federal Theatre Project. Some of the most spectacular productions were put on by black theater professionals, for example: Macbeth, Haiti, Turpentine, Run Little Chillun, and The Trial of Dr. Beck.

This collection consists of graphic materials relating to Federal Theatre Project productions from 1936 to 1939 across the United States, with the majority from New York City and Roslyn, New York, San Diego and San Francisco, California, and Chicago, Illinois. The collection is mostly comprised of black and white photographs ranging in size from 4x5 to 11x14 and duplicate prints, as well as a few negatives.


Works Progress Administration


George Mason University Libraries





Collection Items

Lucy Stone [Scene 8]
Typescript of Scene 8 of the Federal Theatre Project play, Lucy Stone. Play is a biographical piece about 19th century suffagist, Lucy Stone.

Lucy Stone
35 mm color slide or original poster advertising the Federal Theatre Project play Lucy Stone in Boston, Massachusetts.

Lucy Stone appearing before a congressional committee in Washington, D.C.
Photograph of cast during Scene 8 of a performance of the Federal Theatre Project's Lucy Stone in Boston, Massachusetts.
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