We Need A New Federal Theater Project!

After reading about the New York arts’ shutdown, and how more than half the jobs in the fine and performing arts in the city disappeared between April and July (153,000 out of 280,000 gone), I Tweeted:

This is an appealing idea in the theater community, judging by the hundreds who responded online.

It’s not a new idea.

(He’s talking about the actress who played the bugle-tooting burlesque stripper Mazeppa (“Once I was a schlepper, now I’m Miss Mazeppa”) in both the original Broadway and film versions of Gypsy.)

Shortly after the theater shutdown in March of this year, Corinna Schulenburg of the Theatre Communications Group  called for the same thing while speaking to New York Magazine’s theater critic Helen Shaw:

“One of the things we’re talking about internally has been the way in which the scale of this catastrophe — a wholesale shutting down of the field — is only really comparable is the Great Depression. We’re looking at 20 percent or higher unemployment! So what lessons can we find in the Federal Theater Project? Under the New Deal, the government’s super-spending effort that put America back to work in the ’30s, the Federal Theater Project only accounted for 0.5 percent of the Works Progress Administration spending, which, if you applied that to the current bailout, would come to $10 billion. And oh, oh, oh — a new New Deal is a heady thought. We’re still surrounded by the structures the WPA gave us, including dams, bridges, airports, roads — and, yes, our regional theater system. Maybe a new one could bring it back.”

A brief history of the Federal Theatre Project by Paula Becker (focused on Seattle)

Also check out: Rallying to Save The Arts, current efforts by theater activists.

The fascination with the unprecedented four-year experiment in federal subsidy of theater in the United States  — a practice that is common and current throughout Europe and Asia — is indicated by the many books on the subject, including one soon to be published. A sample:

The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study (Cambridge Studies in American Theatre and Drama)

Voices from the Federal Theatre includes interviews with such Federal Theatre actors, playwrights, directors, designers, producers, and dancers as Arthur Miller, Studs Terkel, Jules Dassin, Katherine Dunham, Rosetta Lenoire, John Houseman

Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre written by Hallie Flanagan, the producer, director, playwright and professor who was appointed national director of the FTP, and shaped the program.

Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal (The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture)

The Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times

Staging the People: Community and Identity in the Federal Theatre Project (Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History)

The Federal Theatre, 1935-1939: Plays, Relief, and Politics (Princeton Legacy Library)

Dangerous Theatre: The Federal Theatre Project as a Forum for New Plays

The Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939: Engagement and Experimentation (Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernism, Drama and Performance)

Free Adult Uncensored The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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