17th-18th – 19th October 2019, Toulouse (France) « Federal Theatre Project (1935-39): context & issues »

International trans-disciplinary conference : « Federal Theatre Project (1935-39): context & issues »

17th-18th – 19th October 2019, Toulouse (France)

History of Arts and Performance (HAR, EA 4414, Paris Nanterre), Anglo-saxon Cultures (CAS, EA 820, Toulouse Jean Jaurès)



*CPRS, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès

*INU Champollion

*Dickinson College, Toulouse

*American Theatre and Drama Society

*International Susan Glaspell Society



The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) represented an outstanding adventure in the history of American theatre, totally innovative in its time and never to be repeated in quite the same way. Directed for its four years of existence, from 1935 to 1939, by the author, playwright and stage director Hallie Flanagan, it formed part of the measures set up by the Roosevelt administration in the wider framework of the New Deal, and more specifically that of the Work Progress Administration (WPA) directed by Harry Hopkins.

On the socio-economic level, the crash of 1929 severely affected the world of artistic creation and many actors found themselves without work. The crisis affecting American Society was such that in 1932, several writers got together to support communist candidates William Z. Foster and James W. Ford in the national elections, despite American government opposition to communism, of which the Federal Theatre Project was also a victim. It was in this context that a group of more than 50 writers brought out a pamphlet in the form of an open letter entitled Culture and the Crisis, which enumerated the cultural and social failings, and called for in-depth reforms; it stands out as an emblem of the tensions in American society at the time[7]. The very first sentence of the preface to the letter exemplifies the cultural turning point that was the early 1930s for a whole generation:

We of this generation stand midway between two eras. When we look backward, we see our American past like a great tidal wave that is now receding, but that was magnificent indeed in the sweep of its socially purposeless power. When we look ahead, we see something new and strange, undreamed of in the American philosophy. What we see ahead is the threat of cultural dissolution. The great wave piled up too much wreckage – of nature, of obsolete social patterns and institutions, of human blood and nerve.[8]

At the beginning of the 1930s, with America confronting this “wreckage”, the Federal Theatre Project set up by the Roosevelt administration had to think through its project in the context of a disintegrating social and cultural fabric. This is how, paradoxically, the election of a Democratic candidate whom the communist writers opposed in this text, allowed them to experiment with these new cultural forms initiated and supported by the federal government.

Between the 1929 crisis and the Pearl Harbour trauma of 1941, the US Federal government found the resources needed to devise and set up an innovative theatrical strategy allowing the ideas and theatrical experiments of the 1920s to be put in to practice in different ways, and which would be a laboratory for developing the regeneration taking place after World War II. In this, the FTP is indeed the image of this in-between phase described by the writers in 1932. This is also what Malcolm Goldstein suggested when he defined the pivotal moment in the structuring of American theatre as that when the 1934-1935 season was ending and the 1935-1936 one beginning[9]. It is precisely at this moment that the Federal Theatre Project began take shape[10].

This international conference aims to shed light on a key episode – albeit one that has been largely ignored – in the history of theatre and culture in America. We are happy to open it to specialists in theatre studies, but also to historians, sociologists and artists, with the ambition of creating an event characterized by a trans-disciplinary approach.



The following topics are only meant as general guidelines any approaches will be considered:

1. Sociopolitical and cultural approach:

  • Social, political and economic context of the New Deal and the WPA. The FTP was one of five projects linked to the Arts to be set up in the framework of the New Deal by the Roosevelt administration; the others were the Federal Writers Project devoted to writers, the Federal Arts Project for the plastic and visual arts, the Federal Music Project (which had close connections with the FTP as the orchestras financed under the scheme were often called upon the play in the productions staged in the framework of the FTP), and the Federal Dance Project. All these projects were set up under the auspices of the Work Progress Administration (WPA) created in May 1935 and directed by Arthur Hopkins from 1935 to 1938. Using this approach, the links between the different projects, and their relevance to Roosevelt’s policy could be explored, and their success or otherwise compared to the initial ambitions could be analyzed.
  • Production conditions. The conditions surrounding the production of the FTP performances provide a number of interesting themes to explore: for example how the implementation differed from one region to another, from one director to another, from one period to another.
    • Spatial approach: the different regional branches, questions around accepted performance venues and others which were “no-go”, show tours, the « caravan unit » and the “travelling theatre” project ,…
    • Economic approach: issues concerning free entry, federal State investment, possible shortfalls in funding ….
  • Issues around the Communist question in the American political context of the timeThis question alone could generate several papers: for example, through the prism of Hallie Flanagan’s personality and political and artistic career (and the case brought against her for her supposedly communist stance), or studied through practical and artistic aspects. A paper dealing with the censorship accusations against the government, shedding light on this question would be most welcome.
  • Community and American identityThe way the FTP was structured leads us to question the “federal” character of the project, its purportedly “national” scope and its ambition to construct a specifically American theatre of the people. Each of these facets could inspire specific papers (Yiddish Theatre, Afro-American theatre…) and/or broader studies of the ambiguities arising between Federal theatre, National theatre and Community theatre, addressing the contradictions between the declared intentions and historical reality.

2. The aesthetic approach:

This second angle, making use of case studies, will focus on the question of whether it is possible to identify an overall aesthetic for the Federal Theatre Project. Papers should highlight the aesthetic features of the studied productions, but more importantly, they could examine to what extent these features were – or were not – instigated by the FTP framework. This should encourage consultation of the FTP archives and studies of specific productions.

  • Monographic studies of landmark productionsThe Cradle Will Rock, Macbeth, One-Third of a Nation, It Can’t Happen Here, for example.
  • Study of key figures: Hallie Flanagan obviously, but also Orson Welles or John Houseman, for example.
  • Literary approach. The search for new American authors was also one of the purported aims of the FTP: did the project achieve its goal? Which plays can be identified as FTP pieces? Did the FTP succeed in stimulating the emergence of dramatic writing that was specifically American?
  • Biographical approach focused on Hallie Flanagan. Frequently described by critics as a pragmatic idealist, she often spoke of her conception of the theatre: this could be usefully explained and analyzed in a paper. Her career, her period spent teaching at Vassar College, her role in the FTP, her trips to Europe or her portrayal of the FTP in Arena, could also form the basis of a study.
  • Interdisciplinary approach (links with the cinema). Some key figures of American cinema appear to have begun their careers in the theatre, in the framework of the FTP: drawing on specific cases, it could be worth considering how the FTP era influenced later cinematographic productions.

3. Epistemological and historiographical approach

This third approach will involve bringing to light questions arising from the FTP archives, concerning the different phases of their development and their scientific processing today.

Although relatively unknown in France and Europe, the FTP is well-documented in Anglo-Saxon studies, even if there is some dissatisfaction with the under-representation of this theatrical phenomenon with regard to its importance. Nevertheless, a number of primary sources are available and classified. The National Archives, available via the Library of Congress, include a collection dedicated to the FTP, most of which is accessible online[11], and the Hallie Flanagan archives held at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie[12], in association with the Hallie Flanagan collection in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Smith College where she also taught, provide an extremely rich source of research material.

Over and above the state of archives on the FTP, Hallie Flanagan, and the study thereof, and in view of the sometimes conflictual nature of the FTP, this conference also aims at investigating the configuration and possible shortcomings of the project. Was there some sort of government censorship? If so, how far did it go? Are there any missing documents?


  • The immediate and long-term legacies?
  • The immediate legacy: Some outstanding figures were ‘revealed’ by the FTP, among them, Orson Welles or Arthur Miller. This observation could be discussed, putting the role played by the FTP into perspective, and endeavouring to discover what effects it had on the future careers of those mentioned.
  • Long-term legacy:

* In the USA: What remains of the FTP? What traces did this ephemeral experience of a federally funded theatre leave in American culture, in contemporary theatrical forms and, in the widest sense, in cultural policies generally?

* In Europe: is it possible to identify any direct influence exerted by the FTP in the years following the project? Another lead could be a study of other theatrical adventures that were in some way inspired by the project.

  • International echoes?

To what extent can the FTP be compared to other attempts at national reconstruction through culture (based on examples of specifically theatrical initiatives) drawn up in other countries? The attempt to reconstruct the economy and bring national unity after World War II in France (and the figure of Jeanne Laurent) could be one example, but also the cultural ambitions of the Front Populaire which were almost simultaneous with those of the FTP… Were any international links created with the Federal Theatre Project?

Proposals for papers on the Federal Theatre Project will be given priority, but papers on other WPA artistic projects would also be welcome some insofar as they elucidate the FTP context.


Selective Bibliography

AARON Daniel, Writers on the Left : Episodes in American Literary Communism, New York, Columbia University Press, 1992 [1961].

ARTAUD Denise, Le New Deal, Paris, Armand Colin, 1969.

BENTLEY Joanne, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

BIGSBY C.W.E. et WILMETH Don. B., The Cambridge History of American Theatre, vol. II, 1870-1945, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

COLLECTIF, The Federal Theatre Project. A Catalog-Calendar of Productions (coll.)Westport, Greenwood Press, 1986 (introduction de Lorraine A. Brown).

COSGROVE Stuart, The Living Newspaper: History, Production and Form, Hull, University of Hull, 1982.

CRAIG Quitta E., Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era, Amherst, MA, Amherst University Press, 1980.

ENGLE Ron et MILLER Tice L., The American Stage, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

FRADEN Rena, Blueprints for a Black Federal Theatre, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

FRIED A. (dir.), Communism in America: A History in Documents, New York, Columbia University Press, 1997.

KEMPF Jean, Histoire culturelle des États-Unis, Paris, Armand Colin, 2015.

KOURILSKY Françoise, Le Théâtre aux États-Unis, Waterloo, Renaissance du Livre, 1967.

LEVINE Ira Alan, Left-wing Dramatic Theory in the American Theatre, An Arbor, Umi Research Press, 1985 [1947].

MACGOWAN Kenneth, Footlights Across America: Towards a National Theatre, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1929.

MATHEWS DE HART Jane, Federal Theatre, 1935-39: Plays, Relief and Politics,Princeton University Press, 1967.

O’CONNOR J. et BROWN Lorraine A. (dir.), Free, Adult, Uncensored: the Living History of the Federal Theatre Project, New York, New Republic Books, 1978.

OSBORNE Elizabeth A., Staging the People: Community and Identity in the Federal Theatre Project, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

PASQUIER Marie-Claire, Le Théâtre américain d’aujourd’hui, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1978.

QUINN Susan, Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast Of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, New York, Walker and company, 2008.

REINELT Janelle G. et ROACH Joseph R., Critical Theory and Performance, University of Michigan Press, 2007 [1992].

WITHAM Barry, The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

WITHAM Barry, Chapter 19 is dedicated to the FTP in Jeffrey H. Richards and Heather S. Nathans, The Oxford Handbook of American Drama, New York Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 295-306.

WHITMAN Wilson, Bread and Circuses: A Study of Federal Theatre, New York, Oxford University Press, 1937.



Conference paper proposals should be sent by January 25, 2019 at the latest, to Émeline Jouve (emeline.jouve@gmail.com) and Géraldine Prévot (geraldine.prevot@gmail.com).

à They should include: a) an abstract (4,000 characters maximum); b) a short biographical sketch

Official languages: French and English.

Artistic events are being organized to coincide with the conference.

Advisory board: Zachary Bacqué (Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès), John Bak (Université de Lorraine), Christian Biet (Université Paris Nanterre), Marguerite Chabrol (Université Paris 8), Françoise Coste (Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès), Émeline Jouve (Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès et Institut Champollion, Albi), Sophie Maruejouls (Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès), Géraldine Prévot (Université Paris Nanterre), Matthew Roudané (Georgia State University), Annette J. Saddik (City University of New York)

Organization Committee: Émeline Jouve, Géraldine Prévot




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