New Deal Stage

The WPA Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939

The following text includes extracts from and paraphrases of material in documents in the Federal Theatre Project Archives. These documents, which are examples selected from the Administrative Records are:

  1. Manual for Federal Theatre Projects of the Works Progress Administration, October, 1935.
  2. Federal Theater First Production Conference of New York City. Poughkeepsie, New York, July 22-23-24, 1936.
  3. The Work Program, Works Progress Administration, Federal Theatre Project for New York City.
  4. A Brief Delivered by Hallie Flanagan, Director, Federal Theatre Project, Works Progress Administration before the Committee on Patents, House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., February 8, 1936.
  5. Origin and Chronology of Drama Relief in New York City from January 1934 to January 1937.

The Federal Theatre Project was the largest and most ambitious effort mounted by the Federal Government to organize and produce theater events. It was an effort of the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to provide work for unemployed professionals in the theater during the Great Depression which followed the stock market crash of October 1929. The Federal Theatre Project was one of four (subsequently five) arts-related projects called Federal Project Number One, established under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during Roosevelt's first term. The WPA was created through Executive Order No. 7034 issued on May 6, 1935.

The FTP was administered from Washington, D. C., but its many companies stretched the full breadth of the Nation. It functioned from 1935 to 1939 when its funding was terminated. In that brief period, it was responsible for some of the most innovative staging of its time.

See Manual for Federal Theatre Projects

While the primary aim of the FTP was the reemployment of theater workers on public relief rolls, including actors, directors, playwrights, designers, vaudeville artists, and stage technicians, it was also hoped that the project would result in the establishment of theater so vital to community life that it would continue to function after the FTP program was completed.

Legislative Basis for the Federal Theatre Project

Funds were allocated for Federal Theatre Project from appropriations authorized by the joint resolution, H. J. R. 117, 74th Congress, introduced in Congress on January 21, 1935. Cited as the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, it became law on April 8, 1935. The first official announcement of what was to become the Federal Theatre Project came on August 2, 1935, when the directors of the original four arts-related projects, collectively known as Federal Project Number One, were made known. Federal One, as it came to be called, included projects for drama, music, art, and writing. Hallie Flanagan was sworn in as director of the drama project (FTP) on August 29, 1935. On that date presidential allocation of funds for Federal One was made. The President's final approval of the projects came on September 12, 1935. (Funding for the Historical Records Survey component of Federal Project Number One came at a somewhat later date, initially November 16, 1935 through Presidential Letter No. 1090.)

FTP came to an end on June 30, 1939 when its funding was terminated. In the course of its existence, the FTP was responsible for hundreds of stage productions, both of classics and new plays written for the FTP, mounted in cities across the nation. The FTP is the only instance in which the Federal government was directly responsible for the production and administration of stage work on a large scale.


It was not feasible to operate Federal Theatre Project companies in towns where only a few theater professionals were on relief rolls. However, in order to serve a wide geographic area, FTP projects toured in rural areas.

For example, the Illinois circuit, with companies from Chicago and Peoria, gave performances in Wisconsin and Illinois. Another Midwest circuit, operating out of Detroit, gave performances in other areas of the state of Michigan. The Cincinnati unit toured Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia.

One of the components of the FTP was the National Service Bureau which gave script and technical service, and, when possible, lent equipment and personnel to community and educational groups in every state in the union.

Federal Theatre Project companies covered a number of sections of the country where dramatic productions were infrequently seen.

See Federal Theater First Production Conference

Project Administration

Over the term of its existence, the Federal Theatre Project underwent various adjustments. It always was a unit of the Works Progress Administration, which was administered overall by Harry Hopkins. Hopkins had five assistant administrators. At the outset, the FTP director reported through one of these assistants, Mr. Jacob Baker; later through Mrs. Ellen Woodward who supervised all professional projects, including the four arts projects.

The National Director of the FTP, during its entire existence, was Hallie Flanagan. The National Director was assisted by a Deputy National Director in charge of administration and procedures, and by an Associate Director in charge of all national services such as the handling of royalties, the loan of equipment and personnel, and the reading and reporting on plays. Later in the FTP's life, these three people worked through a regional staff consisting of seven people: the city directors of three major projects in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago; and the regional directors of the West, the Midwest, the South and the East. (Earlier, there were five assistant directors.)

See The Work Program

These ten people made up the Federal Theatre Policy Board, which met every four months, deciding on policies and plays for the next four months. At the meetings, the regional directors presented reports from their state and local directors, allowing a pooling of local, state, and regional ideas. Decisions about the allocation of funds, opening and closing of projects, and employment and dismissal of personnel in key positions, was vested in the National Director and Deputy Director. All managers of the FTP were accountable, through the Director of the Federal Theatre in Washington, to the Director of Professional and Service Projects, under whom the four arts projects constituted one unit under the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

See A Brief Delivered by Hallie Flanagan

At one point in its life, the Federal Theatre Project employed around 12,700 people. More than nine out of every ten of these workers came from the relief rolls. Ninety percent of the FTP appropriation had to be spent on wages. About fifty per cent of FTP personnel were actors. Others were writers, designers, theater musicians, dancers, stage hands, box office staff, ushers, maintenance workers, and the accounting and secretarial force necessary to carry out any enterprise operated under procedures required by the Government of the United States. These workers were employed in theater companies operating in at least forty cities in twenty-two states. The largest projects were those in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Among other cities with FTP activity were Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chapel Hill, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Gary, Hartford, Jacksonville, Manchester, Miami, New Orleans, Newark, Oklahoma City, Peoria, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland (Oregon), Raleigh, Roanoke Island, Roslyn (Long Island), Salem, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Springfield, Syracuse, and Tampa.

Stage Production

Stage productions fell into the following categories, some of which overlapped: new plays; classical plays; plays formerly produced on Broadway; modern foreign plays; stock plays; children's plays; revues and musical comedies; vaudeville; dance productions; Early Americana; American pageants; puppet and marionette plays. Various kinds of units produced under FTP. These included African-American, Yiddish, Italian, Spanish, French and German units.

The Federal Theatre Project Digitization Project

For purposes of this preliminary digitization effort, three titles have been chosen to represent the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Theatre Project Archives. Artifacts available for viewing are from FTP productions of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and the Living Newspaper, Power. It is hoped that these will serve as an introduction to the FTP and give some idea of the breadth and depth both of the FTP itself as well as the FTP Archives.

See The Work Program

Beginnings of the Federal Theatre Project

Before the creation of the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Theatre Project, various drama units were established in 1934 by Harry Hopkins through an earlier Federal agency, the Civil Works Administration.

Subsequently, $27,000,000 of $4,800,000,000 made available by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 was set aside for Federal Project Number One, the four arts projects. In October, 1935, $6,784,036, based on estimated theatrical unemployment, was allotted to the theater. With this commitment of funding, representatives of the Federal Theatre director throughout the country, set up classification boards, auditioned theatre personnel and started theater groups, in cooperation with local Works Progress Administration offices and with the United States Employment Service.

Theatrical unemployment was so high that projects were set up in cities and towns in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Washington, D. C. and Wisconsin. In many of these states, there were a number of projects. New York City alone had 5,000 on the payroll early in the project's history, and had thirty-one producing units; Boston, thirty-three; The state of California, with 1650 people, thirty-two units; Chicago, fourteen; Seattle, five; Cleveland, four; Oklahoma City, Omaha and Philadelphia, three each; Dallas, Manchester and St. Louis, two each; and in Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, New Orleans, and Providence, one each.

See Federal Theater First Production Conference

Regional Grouping:
Theatre Regions, and Regional Directors of Federal Theatre

Projects. In order to provide professional and technical direction for a nationwide program under the Federal Theatre Project, the United States was divided into several theater regions. A Regional Director of the Federal Theatre Project was appointed for each of these regions to act as the representative, in that region, for the Federal Director of Theatre Projects in Washington.

The Regional Director, with the cooperation of existing Works Progress Administration officials in his region, directed the functions of the FTP, and approved all appointments to superintendence positions in the theater projects in his region. The theater regions were as follows:

New York City.

New York State.

New England Region: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont.

New Jersey - Pennsylvania.

Ohio: Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia.

Virginia - Carolinas: North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia.

Southern Region: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee.

Central Region: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin.

Middle West Region: Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota.

Southwest Region: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas

Northwest Region: Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming.

Pacific Southwest: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah.

District of Columbia: Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland.

New York City and the FTP

As might be imagined, the nation's theatrical center, New York City, saw the greatest amount of FTP activity.

See Origin and Chronology of Drama Relief in New York City

Origins and Chronology of Drama Relief in New York City - 1934 to January 1937

As might be expected, the single largest center for the activities of the Federal Theatre Project was New York City. The initial activities of a developing drama project took place in December 1933. The Roosevelt administration requested Mrs. Charles E. Sabin (later Mrs. Dwight Davis), Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the New York State Civil Works Administration, to develop a project that would create jobs for unemployed professionals, especially women.

Emily Holt, assistant counsel of Actors Equity Association, and Dorothy Bryant, executive secretary of the Chorus Equity Association, formulated a concurrent and separate plan for unemployed professional actors in conjunction with Paul N. Turner, attorney for Equity. Their idea was to engage salaried casts to present plays of recognized merit at available places. The suggestion was favorably received, and an experimental plan worked out, in conjunction with Mrs. Sabin.

On January 10, 1934, a Civil Works Administration (CWA) appropriation of $28,000 was made to provide employment, experimentally, for 150 unemployed professional actors over a period of two months. Six performances were to be given each week. As the appropriation was made exclusively for services, a fund was raised by Katharine Cornell, Peggy Wood and Katherine Hepburn to defray the expenses of costumes, properties and accessories.

It was announced that the 150 actors were to be engaged for twelve plays to be presented over a period of eight weeks. Auditions were held at the Actors Equity Association offices, 45 West 47th Street on January 15, 1934. More than 1,000 actors were on hand, many of whose faces were familiar to New York City theatergoers and some of whose names had appeared in lights on Broadway. Strict anonymity was observed in all instances so far as the names of actors were concerned.

Before the original two-month period expired, the experiment had become a definite success, not only as the answer to the need of actors, but as a means of providing free entertainment for thousands of persons. Additional appropriations were forthcoming, additional actors were engaged and additional plays were staged. At first, a cast of actors would play for eight weeks, then be succeeded by a new cast, making it possible to employ a larger number of actors. Later, when the project had been put on a more substantial basis, this policy was abrogated and the time limit for the actor was eliminated.

As the Drama Department of the Works Division Emergency Relief Bureau, the undertaking was launched under the sponsorship of the Board of Education of New York City. Casts were signed through the Actors Equity Association where the offices of the project were first located. Out of the original repertoire of twelve plays, five were presented on the evening of January 30, 1934, just two weeks after the first actors were signed and went into rehearsal.

As soon as the project had been more firmly, if not permanently, established, it expanded rapidly by means of the eight-week rotation system. By October 1, 1934, about 1,000 actors had been given work. As the number of plays in the repertory increased, so did the number of working actors.

By the beginning of 1935, the Drama Department had become a going concern. A repertory of forty plays, which had either been produced or were in preparation, had been assembled. Departments that had been established included the following:

Theatre Workshop
CCC Camp Bookings
Vaudeville Department
Amateur Drama Department
Puppet and Marionette Department
Little Theatre Group
The Portable Theatres

Further information concerning these departments is contained in the FTP file for each. In addition, Booking, Casting, Play and Files, and Publicity Departments had been established. Expert technicians had also conducted surveys to find more suitable auditoriums than had been available at first.

George Junkin, the original managing supervisor of the Drama Department, was assisted in its organization by Colonel Earle Boothe, the well known Broadway producer and director. In July 1934, Boothe succeeded Junkin as Managing Supervisor of the Drama Department, which position he held until the Drama Department was absorbed in November, 1935 by the Federal Theatre of New York City. Donald Gallaher, also well known as an actor, producer and director both in New York City and Hollywood, was Associate Managing Producer.

From the Actors Equity Association, the offices of the Drama department were moved on February 17, 1934 to 80 Eighth Avenue, then transferred on March 10, 1934 to 111 Eighth Avenue where they remained until December 2, 1935 when, as a part of the Federal Theatre Project, they were installed at 701 Eighth Avenue.

On May 1, 1934 the Drama Department was taken over by the Works Division of the Department of Public Welfare. William Hodson, Commissioner of Public Welfare, was the director of all Works Division Service Projects with Grace Gosselin, Assistant Director, in charge. Expenses were then being defrayed as follows: 50% by the Federal Government (Civil Works Administration), 25% by the City of New York and 25% by the State of New York. While the Drama Department productions toured the Civilian Conservation Corps camps, it was under the auspices of the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration.

On August 1st 1935 the Drama Department, together with the various other projects, passed under complete control of the Public Works Administration. The Project was taken over by the Federal Theatre of New York City on November 11, 1935. With the removal on December 2, the offices at 79 Madison Avenue that had been temporarily occupied by the FTP for registration and preliminary organization, were also transferred to 701 Eighth Avenue.

Hallie Flanagan, National Director of the Federal Theatre Project, appointed Elmer Rice as Regional Director of the Federal Theatre in New York City. Mr. Rice resigned on January 25, 1936 and was succeeded by Philip W. Barber.

The inauguration of the Federal Theatre Project saw a complete reorganization. Various new units and departments were established, including four permanent theatre producing groups and the administrative, financial supervision, maintenance and publicity departments. The sub-projects were :

Experimental Theatre, Living Newspaper Power, Negro Theatre, Popular Price Theatre, Puppets and Marionettes, Circus, Vaudeville, Teaching of Theatre Technique, Civilian Conservation Corps Camp Resident Drama, Motion Picture Unit, Bureau of Research and Publication, Federal Theatre Workshop, Municipal Theatre Workshop, Administration, Managers Tryout Theatre, Financial Supervision, Dance Unit, Maintenance Department, Promotion Department.

Shortly thereafter, two new sub-projects, the State Coordinating Unit and Radio Unit, were added. The Booking Unit became a separate sub-project and the Vaudeville and Circus Units were consolidated. The Managers Tryout Theatre was reorganized as the New Preview Project and Touring Unit #1 was created. There were then twenty-two sub-projects, which with the sub-project numbers applicable at the time, were as follows:

65-1698-804 Experimental Theatre
" 805 Living Newspaper
" 806 Negro Theatre
" 807 Popular Price Theatre
" 808 Marionette Theatre
" 810 Vaudeville and Circus
" 812 Teaching of Theatre Technique
" 813 Motion Picture Unit
" 814 Bureau of Research and Publication
" 815 Federal Theatre Workshop
" 816 Municipal Theatre
" 817 Administrative
" 818 New Preview Project
" 819 State Coordinating Unit
" 820 Financial Supervision
" 821 Dance Unit
" 822 Maintenance Department
" 823 Promotion and Publicity
" 855 Radio Unit
" 856 Booking Unit
" 868 Touring Unit #1

Effective July 24, 1936, in accord with Presidential Letter #6020, new official project numbers were assigned to the Federal Projects. The FTP became 265-6902 instead of 65-1698. Certain changes were made in the distribution of sub-projects of the FTP. Wherever deemed advisable, new working numbers were assigned.

The Municipal Theatre Project (65-1696-816) was broken up into five separate producing groups. These were the Suitcase Theatre, Kings and Queens Project, Children's Theatre, Manhattan and Bronx Project and the Yiddish Theatre. The aim of these groups was to find and produce plays of high quality and novelty, to be booked in theatres in the different areas of Greater New York. The Classical Theatre was created, later to be known as Project 891. The former Motion Picture Unit (65-1698-813) was absorbed by the C.C.C. Theatre Project. The former New Preview Project (65-1698-813), an outgrowth of the Managers Tryout Theatre, was discontinued.

By the end of July, the twenty-eight sub-projects of the Federal Theatre in New York City were:
265-6902-804 Experimental Theatre
" 805 Living Newspaper
" 806 Negro Theatre
" 807 Popular Price Theatre
" 808 Marionette Theatre
" 810 Vaudeville and Circus
" 811 Teaching of Theatre Technique
" 812 C.C.C. Theatre Project
" 814 Play Bureau
" 815 Federal Theatre Workshop
" 817 Administrative
" 819 Technical Coordinating
" 820 Financial Coordinating
" 821 Theatre of Dance
" 855 Radio Coordinating
" 868 Touring Unit #1
" 885 Business Coordinating
" 891 Classical Theatre
" 899 Material and Supplies
" 901 Personnel
" 902 Theatre Management
" 903 Touring Unit #2 (Macbeth)
" 904 Suitcase Theatre
" 905 Kings and Queens
" 921 Children's Theatre
" 922 Manhattan and Bronx
" 923 Yiddish Theatre
" 926 Federal Theatre National Publications

Federal Theatre Project National Play Policy Board

The National Play Policy Board was established early in January 1937. Its aim was to meet the need for central control of Federal Theatre play contracts and royalties and also pool the knowledge and skill of Project directors throughout the country.

The Board shaped the play policies of the Federal Theatre nationally. All plays produced by any of the projects throughout the country required the approval of the Board. There was a small executive staff located in New York City which approved all plays that were to be produced.

The National Business Manager's Division of the staff ascertained whether plays were available for Federal Theatre production and upon what terms. It drew contracts for production rights to all plays that were acquired and paid the fees.

The staff read the manuscripts of plays recommended by members of the Board, by the National Play Bureau in New York City, and by other Federal Theatre Play Bureaus. It recommended those plays which it believed had merit. It assisted young authors in rewriting plays for production. The Board instructed the Play Bureaus to mimeograph and send out play lists it approved and to make recommended scripts available to all Projects.

Under the Board's guidance, the Federal Theatre had, to a considerable extent, abandoned the policy of producing only Broadway successes. Some 400 plays, including many new ones, were approved by the Board after its inception.

Federal Theatre Project Loan and Coordinating Project

The Loan and Coordinating Project of the Federal Theatre Project was established in New York City at the beginning of February 1937. Its purpose was to build and maintain a high standard for out-of-town Federal Theatre Projects through the loan of qualified professional personnel. Actors were usually loaned for a period of three months, with extensions granted when the merits of the individual cases warranted.

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