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Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

[Detail] Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939 contains flyers, photographs, scripts, and other materials that offer insights into the history of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), its productions, and its commitment both to providing work for theatre professionals and entertainment for millions. A search engine is currently unavailable for the collection, but this Learn More About It contains a variety of links to specific parts of the FTP’s administrative documents, playscripts, and production notebooks for performances of Dr. Faustus, Macbeth, and Power. These documents allow one to examine how this program reflected and influenced American history on and off the theatrical stage.

1) The Federal Theatre Project

In response to the Great Depression, Congress appropriated $4.8 billion for work relief and created agencies to administer the funds, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA put Americans to work in several public projects, one of which was the Federal Theatre Project. Despite being allocated less than one percent of WPA funding, the Federal Theatre Project employed approximately eight thousand Theatre professionals a year during its four-year run. The instructions and memos found in the administrative documents of this collection represent the variety of theatrical arts produced by the Federal Theatre Project as well as the guiding principles and goals of this organization.

The "Instructions for Federal Theatre Projects" include requirements for productions of Marionette and Children’s Theatres, Vaudeville, Variety, and Circus Projects, and teaching Theatre techniques. The project’s "Six-Month Report" also provides information about the Motion Picture Division which “reviewed and passed on many pictures for showings in [Civilian Conservation Corps] camps, and has gathered and presented to the camps historical, educational and scientific material in connection with the showing of certain of the pictures.”

Documents discussing the assignment of workers to FTP programs are available in notebooks from New York productions of Macbeth and Power. A June 28, 1937 memo from the Power notebook requests the replacement of thirty actors, while the casting notes for Macbeth states, “[W]e are forming the first Federal repertory company, some attention must be paid to obtaining the right people, for they shall be directed in many different and varied characterizations.” Correspondence such as the April 26, 1937 letter from the Power notebook requests specific actors and a review of this collection’s administrative documents (Box 964) yield “Personal Assignment” memos such as the one assigning Jack Seligman to the Children’s Repertory Theatre.

Other documents such as the report, “Educational Aspects of the Federal Theatre Project,” describe a variety of educational programs including marionette performances for children in Bellevue Hospital and for adults learning English as a second language. On page 21 of the report the argument is made:

In the sense that education is that which truly informs and awakens the spirit of a people, the Federal Theatre Project, taken as a whole . . . can be considered a significant educational effort that may have its effect upon and exert an influence over many communities for years to come

  • Why do you think the scope of the Federal Theatre Project activities included more than traditional stage plays?
  • What were the different units of the FTP? What types of jobs did these units provide?
  • What audiences did the Project reach?
  • In what ways might the educational role of the FTP have benefited the American people and the project itself?