Imagining a New Federal Theatre Project with Corinna Schulenberg and Dr. Elizabeth A. Osborne
Mike Lueger: Welcome to the Theatre History Podcast, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide.
Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. The New York Times calls it a “great cultural depression.” The National Endowment for the Arts said that, as of the September 2020, over half of all actors were unemployed. With a few exceptions, most theatres and other performance venues likely won't reopen until the summer of 2021 at the very earliest. The COVID-19 pandemic has been cataclysmic on many levels, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States alone, but it is also brought widespread destruction on the arts sector, leading to financial precarity for institutions and individuals alike.
How can we mitigate the damage and pick up the pieces to build something new? An increasing number of people who work in and study theatre have an answer: a revival of the Depression-era Federal Theatre Project [FTP]. This proposed remedy went mainstream when playwright Jeremy O. Harris brought it up in an interview in December 2020 with Late Night host Seth Meyers. But it's been raised in discussions of the current crisis almost from the very beginning. Today, we are fortunate to be joined by two guests with some unique perspectives and keen insights on the past and possible future of the Federal Theatre Project.
Dr. Elizabeth A. Osborne is associate professor of theatre studies at Florida State University and the author of Staging the People: Community and Identity in the Federal Theatre Project. Corinna Schulenberg is the director of communications for the Theatre Communications Group and founding creative partner of Flux Theatre Ensemble. Beth and Corinna, thank you both so much for joining us.
Corinna Schulenberg: Thank you for having us.
Elizabeth A. Osborne: Really glad to be here.
Mike: I mentioned earlier that people have been bringing up the Federal Theatre Project as a potential model for how to handle this crisis since it began in early 2020, and, Corinna, you were one of those people! You're quoted talking about the FTP in a piece in Vulture by Helen Shaw—and everyone listening to this please keep in mind, this is back in March of 2020, almost a full year before we were recording this interview—about how the pandemic was wreaking havoc on theatre, and things obviously haven't gotten much better since then. But could you please bring us up to date on what the current landscape looks like for theatre and the people who work in them?
Corinna: Sure. Thank you. Hi everybody, I'm Corinna, I use she/her pronouns. I'm speaking to you from the lands of the Munsee Lenape and Canarsie, colonially known as Forest Hills, Queens. I'm really grateful to be with you all today. And to answer this question, you outlined a lot of the economic precarity that theatres are facing and theatre workers are facing, and so the only thing that I want to lift up before I get to some more positive news is that I think as we're talking about the economic impact of the job losses of the shuttered stages, we also just need to talk about the additional trauma of the loss of life. I am often think about the ways in this country that we've never really reckoned with the original trauma of the genocide of Native peoples, the enslavement of Africans; and the lack of reckoning with that trauma continues to make things so much more difficult for us today.
And so I think that what we're talking about is something larger than just an economic depression, if you can even use the word “just.” I think we're also talking about really significant trauma, and for a lot of us—for queer and trans folks of a certain age—this is the second plague in our lifetimes. We are dealing with folks who should be elders but are ancestors. And for people of the global majority—Black people, Brown people, people of color, Native people—this pandemic is also occurring among the longstanding pandemic of police brutality, of White supremacy, which we saw the most beautiful uprising and the largest protest in this country over the summer during the pandemic. So all of that is happening, and that's all in our bodies. And so I think we just need to start from that human place of the care that we all need in addition to the economic support that we need. And of course, these things are linked.
So with all that said, I actually think there's some good news in terms of what is becoming more possible in terms of federal investment in the arts and arts workers at the scale of the Federal Theatre Project. So I'm sure you're all aware, but Theatre Communications Group, where I work, does a lot of advocacy at the federal level, led by Laurie Baskin. We do that work in coalition, and we've had some major successes in part, not just because of TCG's work, but because of a lot of grassroots arts advocacy organizing from the arts hero folks and just theatre leaders stepping up and really making arts advocacy a priority in a way that they hadn't before.
And that's huge, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant is $15 billion. It's not just for theatres, but that's significant. The second draw of the paycheck protection program is $280 billion. Many, many theatres are going to be able to take advantage of that. There's also huge opportunities in the employee retention tax credits. And so, look, these things aren't a big, beautiful Federal Theatre Project, but they are really significant. They're offering major relief opportunities to theatres and theatre workers right now. And that's the work of tremendous advocacy efforts.
And I think that you see symbols of that, not just with Jeremy O. Harris talking about the Federal Theatre Project, which is amazing, but also Senator Chuck Schumer wearing the “Save Our Stages” mask at the inauguration. So this concept of the Overton window, which I think people are probably familiar with, but just the idea that an idea feels impossible until you talk about it enough and it begins to feel inevitable. And think what you are seeing—both from a really tangible policy perspective and then from a cultural perspective—is a shift to where significant federal investment in the arts and arts workers is way more possible than it was even in March of 2020.
And I think that's really, really exciting, and that's not just the work of arts advocacy workers. I just also want to name that it's the work of racial justice, social justice organizers. The only reason that we have a Senate where Chuck Schumer is the majority leader… There's a phrase in organizer circles, “movement did that.” And movement did do that. Movement gave us a Democratic president, the Democratic House and Senate. And that is what is making a lot of these new opportunities possible. And I say that not only to give credit where credit is due, but just to say that I think that this question of the Federal Theatre Project, a new version of it investing in arts workers in that way, is inexplicably tied to these larger conversations about all workers, which is a labor justice conversation, which is a racial justice conversation, which is a climate justice conversation. And we only get stronger when we have that frame. And I think that's where I will end for now.
Mike: Well, if you don't mind, I would also love to hear a little bit about your perspective as someone who is also an artist in addition to your work with TCG. Can you just share a little bit about what this extended shutdown has meant for you, for those you work with?
Corinna: Yeah. I was dreading this question a little bit because, to be honest, it's really raw. So Flux Theatre Ensemble, we are a small ensemble in Lenape land in New York City, although we are based in other areas of the country now too. We're a non-hierarchical, consensus-based ensemble. And so, for us, we've just felt this pandemic really personally. A lot of our ensemble members have been sick with COVID, and some are dealing with the effects of long COVID. So for us, before we even get to the pain of not being able to do our work in the way that we want to, there's just the act of collective care, which is a core value for Flux, and never has it been more important than now, just making sure that we are okay, that folks who need help in our ensemble are getting help.
So it's been really difficult. Then you add on the fact that we had a really amazing season lined up, really great shows that we were really excited about, and there is pain in not being able to do them. We've pivoted, as so many theatre artists have. We have a really cool project coming out that's going to be all phone-based text and using Twilio, and I won't go into it now. So we've pivoted in that way. But I think that during this time, we have prioritized that act of collective care. It's what we've been able to do. And I think it's the most important thing in particular, because I do see a lot of other theatres charging ahead with reopening plans already without a lot of care as to what that's going to feel like to be in a room with people again, without masks, the way in which we kind of need to rebuild our capacity for physical intimacy with each other.
And so that's another thing that Flux is doing. We're working on this ritual of reopening, which will hopefully be something that we can share with anyone else who wants to do it, but what will help get our bodies in a place where we can even be in theatre spaces at all and not feel panic, not feel anxiety, but really be open to what we love about theatre again.
Mike: So that's a perspective on where we are currently in 2021. Let's take a look back to the 1930s now. Beth, could you give us some historical perspective here and maybe just begin by just explaining briefly what the Federal Theatre Project was?
Elizabeth: Yeah, definitely. First off, thank you again for bringing me here. I use she/her pronouns, and I am coming to you from the ancestral land of the Muscogee and the Creek. So to talk a little bit about what the Federal Theatre Project was… I mean, on a very basic fundamental level, it was a work relief program that was part of the New Deal, part of the WPA. And then under that part of Federal One, which was the arts conglomerate of the WPA, it ran for four years from 1935 to 1939. And it was led by this tiny little amazing woman named Hallie Flanagan. She's pretty fabulous. So if you want to hear more about her, I'm happy to share, but I'll focus on the Federal Theatre for now.
I mean, really the Federal Theatre emerged because, a few years into the New Deal, folks looked around and said, “Maybe artists are worthy of getting some relief, too.” And maybe we could even find a way to put those artists back to work in the field that they're actually trained to be in. And so that's really where the Federal Theatre Project came about. It was fundamentally, first and foremost, relief. It certainly grew in other ways, depending on who you talk to. The amazing woman that I talked about, Hallie Flanagan, she saw the Federal Theatre Project as something that could boost morale nationwide in a people who really desperately needed a morale boost in middle of the Great Depression, but she also saw it as something that would preserve—something that was a national resource. Arts abilities, art culture, performance as a whole is something that needed to be preserved, and saying that the Federal Theatre Project could do that.
And then finally she saw it as a way to bring theatre to the masses. And by the masses, I'm really talking about all the people who don't happen to live just geographically within transport distance of actual, like, professional theatres. There's a lot of people in the country, And there were a lot in the Great Depression that just don't physically live near something where they could have a theatrical experience. And so the Federal Theatre Project also was wanting to reach all of those people, or at least a lot of those people, in new ways, to invite new audience members into the field.
Mike: One of the things that's really valuable about your book, Staging the People, is that it gets away from the usual stories. I think many people with a casual knowledge of the FTP will be aware of something like the Living Newspapers, which this kind of documentary theatre, or the different productions that involved, say, Orson Welles, but you get away from that. You talk about how it's also about the way that theatre came to these regional centers on these tours of the countryside. Can you tell us a little bit about how it did that and maybe why it mattered?
Elizabeth: Absolutely. The Federal Theatre Project was a, as Hallie Flanagan saw it, a federation of theatres. And that's actually a quote from one of the pieces that she wrote when she was about what the Federal Theatre Project was. And this federation of theatres existed nationally. It was supposed to be this kind of unified group that could share resources like physical resources, that could share the expertise of people across different areas, across different regions. And so what they did when they set up the Federal Theatre Project was they set up these five different regions. One ended up being New York City, of course, but there were also regions in the Northeast, the Midwest, the West and the South. And in particular, there were a couple of those regions, and I'm thinking about, say the Deep South, where there was not an enormous amount of theatre already there.
And so what the Federal Theatre Project was trying to do was to set up some structures that could actually begin to grow theatre all over the place. Now, these different regional centers were designed to create locally relevant theatre, to bring people into the theatre, to nurture new artists and new voices and to decenter what was happening nationally in terms of what American theatre was. And so they ended up doing that really quite successfully in a number of different in places. The Midwest, for example, really gained a lot from Susan Glaspell. When she was the director of the Midwest Play Bureau, there were new playwrights who came forward. Arthur Miller was supported on the Federal Theatre Project. Just tons and tons of different people ended up finding ways to get into the professional theatre because of the Federal Theatre Project.
So it was something that appealed to communities that looked to create a connection between the communities, like individual communities, and the nation as a whole. Flanagan talks about theatre as being fundamental to democracy itself, as a place where people and communities can work through important ideas, where they can think about other people and other perspectives with empathy, and the Federal Theatre Project was trying to do that with these different regional centers, many of which had hyperlocal activities going on.
Mike: Yeah. What you say about how the FTP is trying to provide something new to its audiences, to people who couldn't visit Broadway or really maybe even see theatre of any sort on a regular basis—I'm just curious, could you tell us a little bit about maybe who was in the audiences for some of these different productions, how it affected their lives?
Elizabeth: Yeah. For the Federal Theatre Project, they had an audience of 30 million people from start to finish. That was over the four years. Of those 30 million, 65% had never seen live theatre before, and one of the ways that they brought those people into the theatre and into the audience was by keeping theatre super, super cheap. 60% of all of the Federal Theatre productions were free. And those that did have any kind of admission cost. It was 10 cents, 25 cents, maybe up to $1.50. The $1.50 was the max. And just to translate that into contemporary money, we're looking at around today as $18 as the maximum. At that $1.50 and the cheaper range, it's like a $5 ticket. And so this was a way for communities, for individuals who had never seen theatre before, to try it out, to put theatre, live theatre, on par with the movies, the talkies; and in doing so, Flanagan was hoping that all of these Federal Theatre Project units would find ways to creatively turn theatre into something that was unique, that wasn't trying to replicate what the movies were doing. And that was instead reaching people on a very different level—whether that was through active participation, thinking through an idea that they hadn't thought through before, through getting research and information, through the Living Newspapers that you mentioned earlier, through getting kids involved. There were just a huge number of different ways that the Federal Theatre connected with communities all over the place. And one of the ways that they did that was because they had the federal funding, and they didn't have to try to go out and spend an enormous amount of time raising money from foundations and from private donors. So it made a big, big difference.
Mike: It's so striking to hear you cite some of those numbers, Beth, about tens of millions of people who saw productions, for instance, about the relative prices of the tickets for FTP productions. Hearing this, and, Corinna, I'm wondering, could you speak to how we might think about doing something similar today, reaching out to audiences who might be excluded from commercial or even regional theatre today?
Corinna: Before I answer that question, I just want to say, Beth, I'm super excited to read your book. Hearing you talk is so fun. And I have to confess I actually, in my office at work—not here at home, but at work—I have a picture of Hallie Flanagan, front and center. I mean, she's amazing. She's amazing.
Anyway, but to come back to this great question you asked: Yeah. I want to say that when I think about this question, who could a Federal Theatre Project serve? I want to honor the wisdom of a question that Rhiana Yazzie, the artistic director of New Native Theatre, asked me and asks everyone when she begins work with them, which is, “Okay, you're on Native land. You're benefiting from Native resources, intellectual, spiritual, and material. What are you doing to build Native power? To return the land, to support sovereignty?”
And so for me, what a great question. When it comes to a second Federal Theatre Project, how would it build power for Native peoples who have been the cultural stewards of this land for a very, very long time and have been making performance for a very, very long time, but who haven't been resourced appropriately. In fact, their resources have been taken and exploited. So I don't want a Federal Theatre Project that brings us back to normal. I don't want a Federal Theatre Project that centers Whiteness. I want a Federal Theatre Project that is invested in Native futures, is invested in the artists who are thinking about Native futures. I want a Federal Theatre Project that's thinking about Black artists and the artists who are dreaming of Black futures who are also woefully under-resourced in spite of the fact that Black labor has built up the majority of the wealth in the capital in this country.
So for me, I really see as foundational a second Federal Theatre Project being absolutely linked with racial justice movements, with sovereignty movements, with Land Back movements. And I think that that is really, really exciting because we are also dealing with a climate crisis. And that climate crisis is absolutely linked to the White supremacist capitalist model. That is how this country got founded. It's why I was so energized to read some work that Beth is working on right now. And I hope she'll talk about it in terms of the Green New Deal and its relationship to a new Federal Theatre Project, because I think when we are centering Indigenous and Native artists, when we're centering Black artists, and in particular, when we're resourcing Native, Indigenous, and Black artists and artists of color who are women, who are immigrants and refugees, who are two-spirit, transgender, queer, who are disabled, who have, have the knowledge of what it means to live at those intersections, what you are going to see is a Federal Theatre Project that is liberatory for everybody.
We all win in a world where those folks are helping lead us into whatever the future is going to look like. So for me, one of the things that happens a lot when you work in an organization like Theatre Communications Group, and you're thinking about the narrative of theatre is, where you start the story really matters. So if you start the story in the 1950s, you leave out the Federal Theatre Project. You get a set of outcomes where you kind of need to rely on private foundations and wealthy donors. That is the narrative that we have since the fifties is the founding of the NEA, the Ford Foundation's amazing gifts to get the theatre field started, but also the very difficult business model that we currently have.
If you go back further to the Federal Theatre Project, you see how much is possible when there is a significant federal investment in decentralized art making. But if you go back even further and you look at what kind of theatre was being made in this country in the 1800s, well, then what you see is minstrel shows. You see shows that are essentially building a cultural narrative where White people were absolutely right to enact Manifest Destiny and to carry through the genocide of Native peoples and the enslavement of Africans.
So when you start there, what I think you begin to see, or at least how I've started to see it, is that theatre has always been at the center of this country's fate, of this land's relationship to everyone who is on it and to the process of genocide, settler colonialism, and White supremacy. And so what I want is a Federal Theatre Project that takes a look at that history and says, “No, we are not going to pretend that that history didn't exist We know that Jim Crow is named after a theatre character. I mean, let's remember that the most racially repressive laws of the past century are named after an extraordinarily popular theatre character.” So I want a Federal Theatre Project that reckons with that history and does so by investing in Black artists, investing in Indigenous artists, investing in artists of color and everyone, because I really think that's how it could work.
Mike: That is a great vision. And it reminds me of what you said in that Vulture piece that I referenced earlier. If you don't mind, I'm just going to quote you at length a little bit here. You said back in, again, March of 2020, “I feel this too is a moment of transition. And just as the other one was marked by grief and loss, but ultimately led to liberation and joy, we can move into this national transition with some intentionality, we can find joy.” And thinking about what you just said and thinking about the quote that I just quoted there: If a new Federal Theatre Project is part of that transition, and hopefully a source of that joy, what does it look like? This is a theatre history podcast, not a policy-planning podcast, but what sort of scale do you envision? What sort of resources would that require?
Corinna: That's a good question. It's so weird to hear my words quoted back to me. Thank you for that, though. And I want to say that that quote was rooted in a conversation with Helen Shaw where I was talking about my experience as a transgender artist and having gone through a really significant transition. And a lot of transgender people, when they talk about the way they showed up in the world prior to transition, they'll use language like “deadname.” And I think that is because, in the process of transition, there is some death. There are some aspects of yourself that you very willingly and happily let go of, but in any sort of loss, in any sort of death, there's pain. And transition is a painful process even as it is a joyful process. It's much more painful because of the culture and policies, but it is also painful just because change is painful.
And what I can say, I think as a transgender artist is that the other side of it though is worth it, is worth that pain. And I think for any of us who have been in a liberated space, which we don't get to be every day, but this idea of “the beloved community,”—which was really popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. but exists as a part of theological practice before him, this idea of the beloved community where we are in right relationship with each other—I don't think of it as an end goal, rather I think it like flickers into existence here and there. And I think probably what the Federal Theatre Project did, all I've read about it in the past, was that it created these flickering moments of the beloved community, where people were in right relationship with each other and with their communities and their land in a ways that hadn't been possible before.
And so that is definitely what I dream about with the new Federal Theatre Project. One that's centered, as I've said before, with Black artists in need, of artists and artists of color, is that that beloved community would flicker into existence with way more regularity. And because of it, we would get a lot better at being at right relationship with each other and being at right relationship with the land and all of our living relations on the land, not just humans.
So how to resource that, which was the second part of your question, is a really important question. I think… I don't have a number. I haven't run the math and be like, “Oh, this amount of investment will lead to this much beloved community.” But I do think that part of the answer is twofold. Like part of the answer is not only thinking about a much larger investment, federal investment in the arts, similar to what happened in the Federal Theatre Project, but also thinking about a much deeper integration of the arts into everything that we do. When we're talking about the Green New Deal, and this is why I want to stop talking and listen to Beth, but when we're talking about the Green New Deal and a just transition, artists have to be a core part of that, because what we're talking about isn't just a shift in policy, but a shift in value. It's a shift in culture. And so part of what I think it maybe it will look like a huge Federal Theatre Project, or maybe it will look like, and, or maybe it will look like a far deeper integration of arts and arts practice into every human activity, particularly the ones that are the most urgent right now.
Mike: Beth, I'm going to quote your words now to you. In your book, you described the original Federal Theatre Project, not as “a successful failure,” which is, I think, traditionally what it's been viewed as perhaps, but in here, I'm quoting you again, “a viable enterprise that in many ways attained its primary objectives to achieve a theatre that could represent the nation while putting Americans back to work in their fields.” From your perspective, both as a historian and someone who's involved with theatre, who cares about out its future, what could a new Federal Theatre Project do to represent the nation while also putting artists back to work?
Elizabeth: Yeah, I think this is a really good and enormous question, and there were a number of really important points that Corinna just brought up as well in terms of focusing on the specific communities who often are not voiceless, but not listened to and not resourced, particularly in our theatre but also in our society at large. And that the new Federal Theatre could provide an opportunity to really find actual dollars-and-cents support for people to do the work that they need to do. And to me, there is no hurt that could come from that. There's discomfort; there's perhaps some unhappiness from time to time as privileges shift, but there's no way that bringing these new voices in is going to hurt what's happening here in US society. And I think when I talk about the Federal Theatre Project and dispute this notion of the “successful failure,” what I really go back to is this idea: What are the goals of the Federal Theatre Project? What were the espoused goals and how did they go about accomplishing those goals?
And if they did—even if a few places did not, for whatever reason—if at large, the Federal Theatre Project attained the goals that they set out to do, then it's doing what it's supposed to do. It's a viable enterprise. It is using the funds, they had $46 million to spend over those four years, just in terms of today, dollars adjusted for inflation. That's a little bit under $900 million, which I know seems like a lot, but there's an enormous amount of money in the United States today, and taking a billion dollars and investing into the infrastructure that is connected to the theatre seems actually like a really, really solid investment to me. To me, one of the things that a new Federal Theatre Project can do to represent the nation is to create different ways for theatre to, again, reach those communities that are not perhaps geographically near a theatrical center, right? And to reach those communities in ways that the work is high quality, that it's locally relevant, and that it is actually involving people in the creation of it.
So in the piece that I think Corinna is talking about where I'm looking at a new Federal Theatre Project connected to the Green New Deal, one of the things that I argue in there is that the Community Drama Program that was connected to the Federal Theatre Project is actually a really good model for thinking about how we might reach an enormous number of people. The Community Drama Program was centered in New York—we would not have to keep that, but it was centered there—and it brought in folks from all over the country. Anyone who was interested in working with communities in creating locally relevant theatre, then they were invited to the Community Drama Program to get training.
And they went through, I want to say it was several months of training, at least. This was actually happening in the Provincetown Playhouse Theatre. So that's what Provincetown ended up doing after it was done with Glaspell and all of the others. But this particular program… Once you get people trained, then they can go back to the communities that they came from and then apply some of these lessons so that they can create huge historical pageants; they can look at really finding local oral histories or interviewing people in the town to get a sense of what they're doing and what is important to them and create work that is based on those conversations, on those interviews. They can do work that is very much emerging from the community itself. And we certainly have any number of models in contemporary theatre for companies that are doing this kind of work, who know how to do it. It's just a matter of funding it on a scale that will get it all out to all of the different people that need this kind of discussion.
And to me, when we think about these massive crises that we're facing right now as a country—whether it is climate change, whether it is racism, whether it is homophobia—there are huge numbers of folks that I think could come around if they had the conversation, if they had exposure to other people who had different ideas or who were coming from different experiences. And our job as theatre artists is to find ways to connect to those people, to bring them the opportunity to engage. When we think about something as big as climate change, I mean, this is insurmountable, apparently.
But if you start to get all of these different people involved, if you had to actually give people agency again, to endow them with the power to make change on their own, you put all of that together. And all of a sudden you have something really, really amazing, something that was—and I'm going back to one of the things that Corinna said at the beginning—insurmountable problems become all of a sudden surmountable, right? That you can handle big things if people are all working together toward that common goal. And I would say that theatre is a way to begin to get us working towards that common goal in really meaningful ways.
Mike: So glad, Beth—and Corinna, you referenced Beth's piece—I'm so glad you're talking about programs like the Green New Deal. I feel like we've seen the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, some of these very worthy programs become these political footballs. They become catchphrases and get reduced to these caricatures. How do we get around that? How do we sell an idea like a new Federal Theatre Project to voters? If it's okay, Beth, I'd like to maybe start with you, just because you have a little bit of a historical perspective from your book and everything about how the Federal Theatre Project ended. I'm wondering if its historical fate in the late 1930s offers us any specific lessons, any parallels that might be worth considering today.
Elizabeth: Yeah. I think that it does. So the Federal Theatre Project ended in the summer of 1939, and it did so amidst a firestorm of controversy connected to the kinds of work that the Federal Theatre Project was doing, connected to fears about Communism and the Red Scare. And we had also the constant accusations of boondoggling—that the Federal Theatre Project was employing, say, an elephant in the circus or a whole bunch of people who had nothing to do with theatre and just came in to get some work relief and were working in the theatre. So I think probably the most important out of all of those things, though I will say it was a range of different things that instigated the end, probably the most important of those, though, is the accusations around content. And with that, the potential Communist activity.
Flanagan was called before the Dies Committee and had to testify a number of different times, and what she said was that, “This is a federal organization. We're not allowed to ask people what their political affiliations are. We hire them based on their experience, based on the fact that they qualify for relief. And then we create things together. This is what we do. This is, in fact, what we are here to do.” And that didn't really go over very well with the Dies Committee and/or with other politicians. There was also the concern that was connected to censorship. And censorship became a big issue. This started from one of the very first shows that the Federal Theatre Project tried to create, Ethiopia, which led to the resignation of Elmer Rice from the Federal Theatre Project.
And so these issues… In terms of what voices a new Federal Theatre would have the potential to put forward, that needs to be made clear from the very beginning, I think, in order to avoid these issues of censorship and of political accusations of all kinds of different ills. The Federal Theatre Project, when it closed, when it lost its funding, it did so amidst a vote from Congress, and Congress effectively in this vote said, “We will fund all the rest of the WPA, but we will not fund the theatre. If you want the WPA to go through, if you want this work to continue, cut the theatre, then we'll vote yes.” And so after that, as Flanagan was trying to find places for all of these workers, there were all of these other kind of subcategories of WPA organizations, and a lot of them actually had theatrical activity that was connected to it. It was recreation-based. I'm thinking of the Farm Security Administration, for example, which had an entire unit that was looking at recreation, and theatre was a big part of that.
But all of those places looked at what was happening in federal funding and said, “Oh, you know what? We need to shut this down. We can't hire any of these new people because we fear that Congress would see that as us trying to skirt what they just said, what they just shut down. And so we cannot bring your people in. We can't hire you because we don't want our organization shut down, too.”
So I think that is something that we need to learn from. We know the NEA has had any number of struggles in terms of content. We know that this is an extraordinarily divided country in terms of politics and identity. And so bringing a theatre into that… if we want the theatre to create something meaningful, we need to find a way to navigate issues of censorship and who has authority over the content that is shared. So I'll leave that there for now, because I want to hear what Corinna says about this.
Corinna: Thank you. Yeah. It is so interesting to hear you on that history and to think about what a deep lesson is in there about the power of theatre and the way in which it's so instructive. That for folks who are interested in maintaining a power structure that is oppressive to most and advantageous a few, they are willing to cede a lot. They're willing to have these big programs, but they are resistant to the programs that might lead to a cultural shift. And that I think is a very deep lesson about the power of theatre and the power of culture and why politicians have always been so afraid of it. And this story continues. I think about the ways in which John O'Neal is just one example in the Free Southern Theater, the way in which they saw the Civil Rights Movement and the work that they were doing as one and the same, as the artistic arm of the Civil Rights Movement.
So there's always been this really deep connection between cultural workers and justice movements, and I think those who would like to see those justice movements be less successful have always tried to sever that connection. And I just don't think it's a bargain that cultural workers can accept. It's not worth the money. I think we do need to be in solidarity with justice workers and justice movements and understand that when we are, that's where our power really lies. There's, again, another organizer phrase, “organized demands are realized demands.” So the question of how we create a Federal Theatre Project that isn't just restoring power back to those who have always had it and whose misuse of power has been so deadly to our planet is that we organize, and the good news is that I think we're more organized than we've ever been.
The recent political shifts are all a result of really, really deep organizing that is continuing to go on, even though this election is over. And so it gives me a lot of hope. It gives me a lot of hope that that devil's bargain of, “We'll fund you a little, but don't you align with those justice movements or we're going to take our funds away.” I don't think we can accept that bargain. And at the same time, that doesn't mean that there needs to be room for a great diversity of voices across all political spectrums in any kind of Federal Theatre Project. But what we can't do is pretend that those decisions aren't neutral, and what we can't do is not ask who is being resourced. What is their relationship to those resources historically, and what do we want to do differently moving forward? Because we know for sure that what we have been doing hasn't been working.
Mike: Corinna and Beth, it's been great to hear your perspectives on the past—and hopefully the future–of the Federal Theatre Project. And I'm wondering, for listeners who are hearing this and who are really excited to learn more, could both of you recommend maybe a few things that listeners could read, watch, listen to, that might help them understand the challenges both today, that face theatres, that face theatre workers and the history of the Federal Theatre Project?
Elizabeth: Yeah. I can recommend some, one would be Hallie Flanagan's book Arena. This is a really fabulous book that is kind of a memoir of the Federal Theatre Project, but also a really extraordinarily helpful documentation of everything that happened from Flanagan's perspective. And so definitely a good one to find. Kate Dossett just came out with a really fabulous book called Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal. And that one is definitely worth checking out as well. Barry Witham’s The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study is a great resource as well. And of course, you're welcome to check out my book on the Federal Theatre Project, Staging the People; I think Mike talked about that one already. And one that a lot of people have been really interested in Susan Quinn's Furious Improvisations.
I will say, too, there's a ton of resourcing that is going on all over the place online right now on the Federal Theatre Project. If you just set up a Google Alert, you'll get articles sent to you on a pretty regular basis about the ways that people are talking about the Federal Theatre Project right now, and I think that is a very worthwhile way to get some more information too.
Corinna: I knew that Beth was going to know way more about how to answer this question, and so thank you for those recommendations. I'm going to read them, and Hallie Flanagan's book is amazing. But I want to say that I think that, in addition to doing that reading about the Federal Theatre Project and all the lessons that are in its history, I would just encourage folks to think about relationship as well, relationships that they have in their local communities now—What is their relationship to the land? What is their relationship to the Indigenous people who have stewarded that land? What is their relationship to Black folks and the history of enslavement?—And to really think about where they, we, I stand in those relationships and then to think about: Where are opportunities for me to shift power so that as we advocate for a Federal Theatre Project, or whatever version of this takes shape, we do so in as close to right relationship as we can get?
And we do so knowing that this new Federal Theatre Project, whatever shape it takes, is ultimately going to be in service of our collective of liberation. And I think that that is something that can only happen through deep relationship. And if you're looking for folks who are thinking deeply about that in the theatre field, there are so many, I'm going to just mention a few. The first is American Theatre magazine does have a great article on the Federal Theatre Project that J.R. Pierce just wrote, please read it.
Elizabeth: I actually read about that article this morning. Nice.
Corinna: Yeah. And Groundwater Arts is a tremendous resource for folks who are thinking about the intersection of the arts and a just transition to a generative economy, deep, deep thinking from those extraordinary leaders. And I also just want to name someone from whom I continue to learn so much, and who I really think is thinking so deeply about these questions of what theatre and community can be in the future, which is Sarah Bellamy, the leader of the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing, formerly the Penumbra Theatre, an extraordinary Black arts organization that has just recently expanded the way they think about their work they're doing to be about racial healing. And in many ways, I think this way that Sarah is thinking is deeply connected to some of the ways that a lot of folks who were a part of the Federal Theatre Project were thinking about their relationship with community. So that's just a few names I want to boost because I've learned so much from them.
Mike: Thank you both so much for those recommendations. We will post links and additional info about many of those resources, as well as more material about the history of the Federal Theatre Project, recent calls to revive it, the current state of affairs in the world of theatre, and how it's been affected by the last year of pandemic. Corinna, Beth, thank you both so much for a great conversation and for joining us today.
Elizabeth: Thank you so much for inviting me. This is really fun.
Corinna: Thank you, Beth. That was a pleasure to learn from you. I'm really grateful.
Elizabeth: You too, Corinna.
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