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History Repeats Itself

Hallie Flanagan in the Twenty-first Century

Born in Hungary, Michael Arve has enjoyed a long career in theatre. He began directing and performing in plays in the 1950s, eventually becoming Artistic Director of the theatre program for The Cobblestone Arts Center in Victor, NY in 1989. Throughout the nineties, he served as Prevention Education Specialist for AIDS Response Knoxville, a nonprofit that provided support for people living with HIV/AIDS in Tennessee until its closure in 1999. In 2003, he won a Theatre Association of New York State award for outstanding acting in Inherit the Wind and has since won thirteen more. He’s currently the Artist in Residence at Rochester, New York’s Multi-use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) and is an outspoken advocate for community theatre.

This fall, he’s directing a piece called Dangerous Theatre at First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival. It's based on testimony that Hallie Flanagan, the National Director of the Federal Theatre Project, gave in 1938 to the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, a HUAC precursor spearheaded by Senator Martin Dies, Jr.

For many people, Tim Robbins’s movie Cradle Will Rock serves as their introduction to the Dies Committee hearings and to the Federal Theatre Project, a federally-funded program that put unemployed theatre artists back to work during the Great Depression. The program lasted only four years, from 1935 to 1939, but it succeeded in employing thousands of people who, in that short time, brought theatre to millions. Tickets for most Federal Theatre plays cost nothing or mere cents, allowing even those hit hardest by the Depression to attend.

It was in part because of Hallie Flanagan’s view that theatre should be made accessible to everyone that the Federal Theatre Project came under congressional attack. The Committee's charge? The harboring of Communists and the spreading of Communist propaganda. Many historians point to the Dies Committee hearings as the beginning of the end of the Federal Theatre Project.

I spoke to Michael about his interest in the Federal Theatre Project, his reasons for dramatizing Flanagan’s testimony for 21st century audiences, and why it’s so important to remember history.

I think it's very important for audiences to see what was done in the past in the name of 'good government' that was basically wrong-headed. And I hope it encourages people to look up the Federal Theatre Project and learn from it.

Amy Brady: What inspired you to dramatize Hallie Flanagan’s testimony to the Dies Committee?
Michael Arve:
I found the transcript of her 1938 testimony in Eric Bentley’s book Thirty Years of Treason. Before I started it, I anticipated that reading it would be like watching grass grow in winter—really drab. But her testimony just grabbed me from the very first page. It's not dry or dull at all. The Committee really pushed her on whether the Federal Theatre Project was involved in any Communist dealings, and she did not draw back one bit.

After reading that I picked up the biography of Hallie Flanagan written by her daughter, and then read Flanagan’s own works, Arena and Shifting Scenes. I’m amazed at how few people, college professors included, have no idea that the Federal Theatre Project ever happened. In addition, so many people think that the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) hearings began in 1947 with Hollywood people, but they didn't—they go back at least to the 1930s.

Amy: Is the performance based entirely on Flanagan’s testimony?
: Yes, it's basically verbatim theatre, because it’s created totally from transcriptions from the hearing. I didn't change any words. But because we were given a fifty-minute running time, we had to cut about twenty minutes out of the transcript. Nothing vital, though. Just some redundancies such as when the Committee members would ask the same question over and over again.

Amy: Tim Robbin’s movie about the Federal Theatre Project, Cradle Will Rock, has this great scene where the Dies Committee asks Flanagan whether Christopher Marlowe was a Communist. Did that actually happen?
: Yes! That's in our show! I just love it. The whole cast couldn't stop laughing when we first rehearsed it. It just goes to show you that even people in government lack a theatre education. It's funny but tragic why they didn't know about Marlowe. They, like so many students today, just weren't taught theatre history in school. Most high schools still don't teach Marlowe. You're lucky to be exposed to him in college.

Amy: Do you think the United States federal government will ever fund anything like the Federal Theatre Project again?
: No. Point blank and simple. We are one of the few advanced nations in the world that does not have a national theatre and I don't think we will have. A part of the problem is that people don't want to support it with their tax dollars. Tony Randall tried to start a national theatre, if you remember, but it cost tax dollars, and too many politicians fought about it. Another problem is that theatre isn't necessarily viewed as democratic, but as elitist, which, well, history has a lot to say about that. Look at the Federal Theatre Project and its plays about “the people.” I would love to do many of them: Revolt of the Beavers, Spirochete, Power, Injunction Granted.

Amy: Why dramatize Flanagan’s testimony now, in 2016?
: Americans tend to forget their history. And as the saying goes, if you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it. I think it's very important for audiences to see what was done in the past in the name of "good government" that was basically wrong-headed. And I hope it encourages people to look up the Federal Theatre Project and learn from it. Also, the tension and humor in the transcript is just good theatre! That, by the way, was Hallie Flanagan’s criteria for staging plays.

She asked herself, “Is it good theatre, is it being done well, and is it going to reach people?” Her approach was an excellent one. Over twenty-five million people went to see Federal Theatre Project plays! And that was in the 1930s. You know, I just shudder when thinking about how few people know about Hallie Flanagan and how great she was. She was an incredibly influential practitioner of college theatre, but beyond that, people on Broadway used her methods.

vintage head shots
Left: Hallie Flanagan. Right: Meredith Powell Carroll, who portrays Flanagan in Dangerous Theatre.

Amy: Our collective forgetting is part of a more systemic problem, don’t you think?
: Yes, lots of people think that there weren't many women in theatre back then, but there were many, many influential women, such as Margaret Webster, Cheryl Crawford, and Audrey Wood—she was Tennessee Williams's agent. Eva Le Gallienne was one of the greatest actresses—and theatre managers—of the twentieth century. She challenged male-dominated Broadway, and yet, people aren’t familiar with her.

Amy: Why do you think you were drawn to studying the history of women in the theatre?
: I think there's something genetic to it. The Hungarians—I was born in Hungary, my parents are Hungarian—have two festivals each year to commemorate the 1848 and 1956 revolutions. When I was young, my mother, who trained for the Budapest Opera as a singer, was always asked to recite poetry at these festivals, and she liked to recite the most dramatic poetry she could find. I would bring friends of mine who did not understand a word of Hungarian to listen, and they would be in tears.

My mother, lord. She never hit me in my life, but when she was hurt or angry she would look at me with the eyes of a basset hound. She would hold her chest delicately and say, “I thought better of you!” Really, I had no choice but to end up in the theatre, creating shows about incredible women.

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