Sections: Birth of The Federal Theatre Project — Coast to Coast | The Plays and the Players | Final Curtain: The Legacy 

Two men in a car National in scope but regional in emphasis, the FTP was composed of many different units in charge of stage presentations in specific geographic areas. Larger nationally overarching units were responsible for the general administration of a sizable federal bureaucracy, which employed more than 12,000 people within 150 regional administrative units that produced more than 2,700 stage productions.

National Director Hallie Flanagan (1890–1969) administered the FTP from Washington, D.C., under the oversight of Harry Hopkins (1890–1946), director of the Works Project Administration and one of President Roosevelt’s closest advisers. The United States was divided into numerous theater regions that provided professional and technical direction for a nationwide program. The Federal Theatre Policy Board, which met every four months, decided on policies and selected plays and performances for the upcoming months. At the meetings, the regional directors presented reports from their state and local directors, allowing a pooling of local, state, and regional ideas.

Projects were set up in cities and towns in the majority of the states—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, Wisconsin, and in Washington, D.C.  Performances toured to virtually every corner of the nation—coast to coast—often traveling to rural areas where live theater was seldom seen, with some shows performed outdoors using portable stages.

Federal Theatre Project’s Director Hallie Flanagan

Hallie Flanagan (1890–1969) was sworn in as director of the Federal Theatre Project on August 29, 1935. Harry Hopkins (1890–1946), Flanagan’s former college classmate and special advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, selected Flanagan to head this creative branch of the WPA as a result of her reputation for mounting innovative theater productions. She was the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to study theater in Europe and Russia. President Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, and Harry Hopkins had a strong interest in bringing high-quality theater to remote areas of the nation. All three were intensely interested in arts education, also of the utmost importance to Flanagan.

Hallie Flanagan with Vassar colleagues, ca. 1935. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0001

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Eleanor Roosevelt Attends a Federal Theatre Production

Hallie Flanagan (1890–1969) was sworn in as director of the Federal Theatre Project on August 29, 1935. Harry Hopkins (1890–1946), Flanagan’s former college classmate and special advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, selected Flanagan to head this creative branch of the WPA as a result of her reputation for mounting innovative theater productions. She was the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to study theater in Europe and Russia. President Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, and Harry Hopkins had a strong interest in bringing high-quality theater to remote areas of the nation. All three were intensely interested in arts education, also of the utmost importance to Flanagan.

Eleanor Roosevelt at Treasure Island, San Francisco, ca. 1937. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0002

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FDR with Harry Hopkins, Head of the WPA

Hallie Flanagan (1890–1969) was sworn in as director of the Federal Theatre Project on August 29, 1935. Harry Hopkins (1890–1946), Flanagan’s former college classmate and special advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, selected Flanagan to head this creative branch of the WPA as a result of her reputation for mounting innovative theater productions. She was the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to study theater in Europe and Russia. President Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, and Harry Hopkins had a strong interest in bringing high-quality theater to remote areas of the nation. All three were intensely interested in arts education, also of the utmost importance to Flanagan.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt with Harry Hopkins, 1938. Photograph. Prints and Photographs Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (003.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0003

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The Federal Theatre Project’s Research Service

One significant example of the overarching organization of the FTP is found in the National Service Bureau, which was created in 1937 by combining the FTP’s Play Bureau and the Play Policy Board. The bureau provided play reading, research, and consultation services, it wrote, re-wrote, and translated plays, and it sent synopses and scripts to FTP units in thirty one states. Thirteen hundred plays were reviewed in the first six months of operation alone. Centered in New York City, the information provided by the bureau was instrumental in strengthening the nationwide program by supplying vital research support to the smaller units.

Map showing research service to forty Federal Theatre Project units. New York: National Research Bureau, ca. 1937. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)
Digital ID # g3701e.ct003196

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Federal Theatre Project Operating Manual

Federal Theatre Project Collection at the Library of Congress includes manuals, reports, Correspondence, memoranda, inventories, speeches, organizational plans, weekly reports, and attendance records. Shown here is the cover of an eighteen-page manual that details the purpose and primary aims of the FTP. It describes the types of projects, provides information about the thirteen theater regions across the U.S., and lists the regional directors. It also sets procedures for approval of projects, provides guidelines for the analysis of the qualifications of the workers and their salaries, specifies labor and production costs and admission prices, and includes forms for administering the programs.

Manual for Federal Theatre Projects of the Work Progress Administration, October 1935. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0004

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Sections: Birth of The Federal Theatre Project — Coast to Coast | The Plays and the Players | Final Curtain: The Legacy