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Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

[Detail] Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

Historical Comprehension: Production Limitations

The project’s "Third Year Report" notes that ninety percent of Federal Theatre Project funding was designated for labor costs. One section of the report, “The Plan,” explains that limited funds required that a new theatre vocabulary be developed: “writers, actors and designers must try for a rapid, simplified, and vivid form of stage expression.”

The production notebooks from various performances of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus detail the challenges facing each production. The director’s notes from the New Orleans production explain, “The difficulties at times seemed insurmountable as the theatre was literally being built under out feet while we were rehearsing and getting out the sixty-nine costumes used.” The notebook's production notes outline the requirements for the production while the "Critic’s Opinion" page includes a description of the space that houses the production: “the building has been slicked up at low cost. . . There is only one fault in the auditorium, the seats have not been slanted – this because the money ran out.”

A "Sound Department Report" describes the renovations needed by many theatres rented or leased by the FTP, which required “highly technical installation of sound equipment in order that the utmost efficiency could be rendered the public and the actors themselves. Many of the theatres had never been equipped with sound and therefore echoes had to be eliminated by technical means.”

Obstacles were also faced in the productions themselves. The Detroit production notebook includes a "Director’s Report" describing the limitations of the production:

Casting called for considerable doubling on the part of our Acting Company, yet at the same time it gave every one an opportunity of working in the last play of the season. Our project at that time had neither the lighting equipment nor staging facilities to make of the production.

This situation prompted the unit to design the play so that it could be performed with a minimum of technical requirements, allowing them to take the production to many audiences: “It was our spot bookings that brought the production out of the 'red'; and the very nature of the play brings numerous requests, particularly from Churches and Schools, for additional performances.”

  • Why was it important to allocate most of the FTP funds to salaries?
  • How did the FTP productions reinvent the vocabulary of the theatre?
  • What were the limitations of the productions?
  • Were there any benefits to these limitations?