The Federal Theatre Project (FTP, 1935-1939) stands alone as the only real attempt to create a national theatre in the United States. In the midst of one of the greatest economic and social disasters the country has experienced, and between two devastating wars, the FTP emerged from the ashes of adversity. One of the frequently lampooned Arts Projects created under the aegis of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, the FTP lived for four short, turbulent, and exhilarating years. Under the leadership of National Director Hallie Flanagan, the FTP employed more than 13,000 unemployed theatre professionals, brought some much needed emotional support to an audience of more than 30 million, and fought to provide locally relevant theatre for the people of the United States.
Yet, how does a national organization create locally relevant theatre in cities and towns throughout this diverse country? Each chapter addresses the same overarching question: How did the FTP develop a relationship with its surrounding communities, and what were the dynamics of that relationship? The regions all dealt with the question in a manner that was unique to their experiences, and which was dependent upon the political, social, cultural, and economic issues that made the communities themselves distinct. Recognizing these differences is vital in understanding both the FTP and the concept of a national theatre in America.
This dissertation considers the perceived successes and failures of specific case studies in both urban and rural locations in four of the five major regions, the Midwest, South, East, and West. The integration of a wide breadth of material, from scripts and playbills to inquiries into the government structure, institutional power formations, and dominant discourse, shape this study into a rich cultural history. Points of entry include the Chicago FTP's productions of O Say Can You Sing? and Spirochete, Boston's Created Equal and Lucy Stone, Atlanta's Altars of Steel and "Georgia Experiment," and the pageants developed in Portland, Oregon. This collection of case studies suggests that the FTP served to both continue and inspire a "people's theatre," ultimately becoming one of the most successful failures of American theatre history.