Coast to Coast: The Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939

Established under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the first term of the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was a unique chapter in American history. Radical in concept, the FTP was the only large-scale effort undertaken by the federal government of the United States to organize and produce theater events. It had a brief life—from 1935 until 1939—but in that time the FTP presented an extraordinary number of theatrical productions across the United States. The productions encompassed virtually all types of performances, including opera, the classics, modern drama, puppet theater, vaudeville, circus, and dance performances.

The essential aim of the FTP was to provide salaried work for theater professionals unemployed as a result of the Great Depression. An equally important aim was to bring high-quality theatrical productions to both large cities and small towns across the United States at an affordable price, exposing many Americans to theater for the first time. These aims were drawn from an earlier federal drama project administered by the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which was established in New York in December 1933.

Funds were allocated for the FTP through federal legislation enacted on April 8, 1935. Theatrical producer, director, playwright, and author Hallie Flanagan (1890–1969) was appointed national director of the drama project and served during the project’s entire existence. Based on estimated theatrical unemployment, $6,784,036 was allotted to the FTP. With this funding committed, representatives of the FTP throughout the country created the considerable organizational structure necessary to see to all of the many administrative aspects of this vast new enterprise. Theater personnel were auditioned and the beginnings of the many theater groups were realized in cooperation with local WPA offices and with the United States Employment Service.

Coast to Coast: The Federal Theatre Project, 1935–1939 explores the period of time when the federal government created a cultural program to provide work for theater professionals who were out of work as a result of the Great Depression. The exhibition features materials from the Library’s Federal Theatre Project Collection.

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