The Federal Theatre Project

Color silkscreen poster for a Federal Theatre Project presentation of "Hansel and Gretel" by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) at the Beaux Arts Theatre, 8th and Beacon Streets, Los Angeles, California

Treated in May 1935, the Works Project Administration (WPA) served as the federal government’s new approach to providing unemployment relief during the Great Depression. In sharp contrast with the dole established in the early days of the New Deal, Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins believed that aid should consider skills and self-respect along with need. He determined that, to the greatest extent possible, workers should receive positions and salaries in the areas in which they were skilled and had previously earned their livings.

Hopkins also maintained that workers in the arts deserved unemployment aid just as much as workers in other fields. To this end, he created Federal Project Number One and allocated funds for the fields of writing, music, art and drama. Furthermore, the drama allocation would go toward a “free, adult, uncensored” federal theatre aimed at producing unique and affordable entertainment.

Hopkins chose fellow Grinnell College alumnus Hallie Flanagan as the project’s director. Flanagan, the first woman to win a Guggenheim fellowship, had a long and successful background in experimental theater. She began work on the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in August 1935.

Despite its origins as a relief agency, the FTP created some of the era’s most innovative and successful productions and counted many future stars among its ranks, including actors Arthur Kennedy, John Huston, E.G. Marshall, John Houseman and Orson Welles; playwrights Oscar Saul, Herb Meadow and Arthur Miller; and future Rebel Without a Cause director Nick Ray. One of Flanagan’s innovations was the living newspaper, a unique FTP medium that harnessed the talents of unemployed theater personnel and newspaper writers. Writers researched topics and developed play drafts, which the head playwright modified and polished before passing them on to the actors and directors, who would revise and dramatize them. Plays eventually evolved into finished, group-based productions.

FTP aimed to create objective living newspapers that were fact-based-- yet somewhat editorialized-- presentations of social issues and problems such as race, health care and public utilities. Each would inform audiences and offer viable solutions, most of which involved judicial or legislative action.


One of the most successful examples of this dramatic form was Power, a 1937 production developed by the New York living newspaper unit that called for public ownership of utilities. The opening scene depicted a power failure, followed by a presentation that combined facts and history with fictional characters and scenes to explain its causes. As with other FTP living newspapers, Power relied primarily on projected scenery, presenting themes and dates, statistics, headlines and maps, along with visual images such as photographs and animated shorts. It also incorporated the experiences of a fictional average consumer, Angus K. Buttonkooper (originally played by Norman Lloyd), as a means to educate the audience on both the technical and business aspects of the power industry. Power hailed the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a positive means of government intervention; much of the play’s second act explored both the need for and opposition to the TVA. The play concluded with a visual question mark on the final curtain, accompanied by the question, “What will the Supreme Court do?” announced from a loudspeaker, in reference to the other New Deal programs that had already been deemed unconstitutional by the nation’s highest court.

Sixty thousand people in New York City bought tickets before the show opened on February 23, 1937, and the play earned $4,000 in its first five performances. The critical reaction to Power was strong but somewhat mixed. The Nation deemed the production a “unique piece of art” and observed that “every fact is accurate; and the author of the play, Arthur Arent, proves what journalists have always maintained-- that an accurate fact carefully aimed may be as deadly as a bullet.” But as Hopkins had anticipated, others considered Power to be a brazen example of anti-industry propaganda. The morning after the play’s opening, the New York Times reported that “after burrowing into history, court records and newspaper files,” the “aggressive and versatile lads” of the living newspaper staff had “come out impartially against the electric light and power industry-- and for the TVA-- practically defying the Supreme Court in the last scene to sustain an injunction against TVA’s construction of power lines for new customers.” And while Life considered the production to be “exciting and unique,” it declared it “WPA public ownership propaganda.”

Despite the controversy, Power became a model for future FTP living newspapers and ran for five months. Other cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle staged their own productions of the play; Seattle’s mayor even celebrated the occasion by declaring “Power Week” in his city. However, the controversial nature of many of the FTP’s productions, including Power, made the organization a target of government conservatives and a focus of the House on Un-American Activities Committee in 1938.

After several months of hearings and debate, a compromised agreement continued funding for other arts programs but abolished the FTP in summer 1939. Given little choice but to sign the congressional bill or lose more relief programs, President Franklin Roosevelt lamented, “This singles out a special group of professional people for a denial of work in their profession. It is discrimination of the worst type.”