Saturday, August 22, 2009

Remembering the Federal Theatre Project


A poster from a play with political punch--It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, and a photo from an early New York production of Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot--both productions by the Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s, remembered in several posts below. (By the way, the prices for the Lewis play are in cents.)

Remembering the Federal Theatre Project

"The Federal Theatre of the Works Progress Administration, which, within two years, was to be described by a leading critic as 'the chief producer of works of art in the American theatre' and which came to play such a vital part in so many of our lives, was not primarily a cultural activity. It was a relief measure conceived in a time of national misery and despair. The only artistic policy it ever had was the assumption that thousands of indigent theatre people were eager to work and that millions of Americans would enjoy the results of this work if it could be offered at a price they could afford to pay.

"Within a year of its formation, the Federal Theatre had more than fifteen thousand men and women on its payroll at an average wage of approximately twenty dollars a week. During the four years of its existence its productions played to more than thirty million people in more than two hundred theatres as well as portable stages, school auditoriums and public parks the country over."

These are the words of John Housman in one of his volumes of memoirs, Run-Through (which when it was first published in 1972, was one of the first books I reviewed for a Boston weekly newspaper.) As a producer and administrator, Houseman and his collaborator, the young Orson Welles, were part of two of the most famous Federal Theatre productions during the Great Depression of the 1930s--one at the beginning of the Project, and another that has become the emblem of its end.

More on the Federal Theatre project on posts below, following photos.
The 1936 Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth in Harlem.

Voodoo Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock

Houseman became director of the Negro Theatre Project in Harlem (in those days, "black" was the impolite term) when the black woman everyone agreed should head it insisted he be hired as her co-equal associate, but then she became too ill with cancer to continue. There were productions by black playwrights, but one of the first was a production of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles, at the beginning of his tempestuous partnership with Houseman.

Welles used the tales surrounding an actual dictator of Haiti to create what was soon dubbed the Voodoo Macbeth. And it was no idle name. The three witches were played by voodoo practitioners from Haiti. They held back on their spells but Houseman claims that when they got a hostile review, they used the real thing, and the reviewer died within weeks.

As rehearsals began, Harlem was of two minds about the project. Some felt it was a white attempt to humiliate black actors unfamiliar with the verse, and a few adherents of this view tried to beat up Orson Welles late one night after a rehearsal. But the premiere was a stellar event, and brought out an audience of 10,000. It was stunningly successful, and remains one of the most famous Federal Theatre productions. Houseman was particularly impressed with the offstage technicians and artists from Harlem, highly skilled but usually without work in the theatre. They had that work for the brief life of the Project.

That was 1936. By 1937, Houseman and Welles were running a unit in midtown Manhattan for classic productions, called Project #891. By then the economy was marginally better, and the buzzsaw of Republican criticism had increased and threatened the entire Federal Theatre Project. By early summer, retrenchments had begun, and one of the first victims was to be the political musical Houseman and Welles were preparing to mount, called The Cradle Will Rock.

The relevant scenes in Tim Robbins feature film of 2000, Cradle Will Rock, conform to Houseman's account. The production was locked out of its theatre, with all the sets, costumes, and even the scripts locked inside, under guard. Unions wouldn't permit actors to play in any wildcat production. But at the last minute an empty theatre was found, some of the audience in several groups marched through Manhattan streets to that theatre, and the place was packed.

As in the movie, the play's author, Marc Blitzstein, was prepared to sing the entire score while playing piano. But Houseman believed that the actors were not technically in violation of their union's order if they didn't take the stage. And as in the movie, it was one lone female voice, a novice actor, who began singing her part with Blitzstein, from her seat in the audience. Others began to join it, and to work out scenes and dialogue, standing in the aisles.

The movie doesn't show or mention that the event was so successful that it was repeated several times on subsequent nights, with everyone trying to remember and reproduce what had happened spontaneously the first night. Eventually Houseman and Welles detached themselves from the Federal Theatre Project, and did the musical as a full, independent production. It wound up being presented more than 100 times, and has been revived on stage at least five times over the years, in 1947, 1960, 1964, 1983 and 1985.

Top photo: Hallie Flanagan, Director of the Federal Theatre Project and one of the heroes of American Theatre. Second photo: a Living Newspaper production, Injunction Granted.

Living Newspaper

Though these were among the more famous productions, they were hardly the only ones. There were many more in New York alone, including the Living Newspaper productions.

"...the [Living Newspaper] seeks to dramatize a new struggle – the search of the average American today for knowledge about his country and his world; to dramatize his struggle to turn the great natural and economic forces of our time toward a better life for more people," said Hallie Flanagan, head of the Federal Theatre Project and one of the great heroes of American theatre.

Most Living Newspaper productions were born in New York, but there were autonomous Living Newspapers in other cities such as Chicago and Seattle. In New York, the LN brought together actual journalists with theatre people to tell original stories, in experimental form (like Injunction Granted) and as more traditional plays ( One-Third of a Nation, a title which referred to FDR's famous speech about "one-third of a nation, ill-housed and ill-clad and ill-nourished.")

Topics included poverty and power, racism, and sexually transmitted diseases. Shows could be satiric, employing puppetry, dance and acrobatics. Many were very popular with the public. Conservative opponents were predictably outraged, and the LN was an early target of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Living Newspapers under the Federal Theatre Project were shut down in 1939.
Altars of Steel, a Federal Theatre Project Production in Atlanta.

Towards An American Theatre

But there were many more Federal Theatre Project productions outside New York, and even outside big cities. This site with text by Lorraine Brown offers an excellent overview, particularly outside New York, with links to Federal Theatre Project documents online. (Stage Matters has had this site in the links list since the beginning.) Her emphasis is on what the Project did for American theatre. She also details the role of Hallie Flanagan.

Brown notes that theatre was a major victim of the Depression, with theatres closing all over the nation. The Depression also began the demise of the New York touring companies, which used to fan out through the country by the hundreds. Broadway was also much larger, with scores of theatres.

The Federal Theatre Project not only revived theatres themselves but took productions to hospitals, CCC camps and other venues. Hallie Flanagan's plan for the Project emphasized quality productions but local productions, to the point that actors and theatre artists who had migrated to big cities for work were encouraged to return to their hometowns for projects there. Flanagan was forthright about her goal: "caring for the unemployed but recreating a national theatre and building a national culture."

The Project was inaugurated not in New York or Washington, but in Iowa City, Iowa, at a National Theatre Conference. It was there that Flanagan assured theatre artists that government funding did not mean censorship. Though there were some censorship disputes, the direction was also clear. "In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty, as to the function of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to all these forces, the theatre must grow up," Flanagan insisted. "The theatre must become conscious of the implications of the changing social order, or the changing social older will ignore, and rightly, the implications of the theatre."

There were plays done outside the Living Newspaper and outside New York about social issues. Altars of Steel, stressing "the need for economic freedom in the South," was written by a Birmingham, Alabama playwright (Thomas Hall-Rogers) and first produced in Atlanta, Georgia. But there were also productions of classic plays: Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Androcles and the Lion in Los Angeles, for example. Plus newer plays with no overt social subject, such as one of the first productions of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral in New York and the all-black The Swing Mikado in Chicago.

But the hopes for a national American theatre ended when the Federal Theatre Project, an easy target for New Deal opponents, was cancelled on June 30, 1939. It was killed, Hallie Flanagan said, "because the powerful forces marshaled in its behalf came too late to combat other forces which apparently had been at work against Federal Theatre for a long time. Through two congressional committees these forces found a habitation and a name." The committees were HUAC and the House Appropriations Committee, which simply cut off its funding. It was, Flanagan said, "perhaps the triumph as well as the tragedy of our actors that they became indeed the abstract and brief chronicle of the time."

Another poster and a scene from Federal Theatre Project productions of It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.

The Federal Theatre Project Legacy

The Federal Theatre Project was important to the careers of many actors, directors, producers, playwrights and other theatre artists who would become prominent in American and international theatre and film for the next generation or more. Some of them would carry part of what they experienced, learned and produced into their future endeavors. Without what he did and saw in the Federal Theatre Project, Orson Welles probably would not have made what is often considered the greatest American movie, Citizen Kane, especially in the way he made it.

But after the self-censorship of the war years, and the violent suppressions of the 50s--the reign of HUAC and the Blacklist, which sent many theatre artists into exile or prison, or drove them to suicide or at least out of theatre and film-- the political theatre of the FTP has been purposely forgotten. Add to that the temporary nature of theatre, especially without extensive film documentation, and too much has been lost.

Occasionally, as in the Robbins film, an aspect of it is resurrected. A few plays have been revived: notably Big White Fog by Theodore Ward, first produced by the Negro Unit of the Chicago Federal Theatre Project in 1938, was produced in 2007--in London. A review in the Times Literary Supplement describes it as the story of a black family during the 1920s and 30s, confronting alternatives and prejudices within the black community, as they try to navigate through the "big white fog" of the dominant white society and its racism. Although there are anachronisms, the review notes, the writing remains powerful.

Sometimes, too, current situations revive some memories--and not just the threatened reenactment of a severe economic crisis. It was 2006, when the Bush administration and the Rovean politics of inflaming and exploiting the religious Right, inspired Joe Keohane to write a retro-book review in the Boston Globe of the Sinclair Lewis novel, It Can't Happen Here. His review begins:

PICTURE THIS: A folksy, self-consciously plainspoken Southern politician rises to power during a period of profound unrest in America. The nation is facing one of the half-dozen or so of its worst existential crises to date, and the people, once sunny, confident, and striving, are now scared, angry, and disillusioned.

This politician, a ''Professional Common Man,'' executes his rise by relentlessly attacking the liberal media, fancy-talking intellectuals, shiftless progressives, pinkos, promiscuity, and welfare hangers-on, all the while clamoring for a return to traditional values, to love of country...
"


The novel was pretty popular when it was published in 1935, but what Keohane doesn't mention that it was even more popular as a play--a play produced by the Federal Theatre Project. It played in 18 cities in October 1936, to capacity audiences. Eventually 23 companies played it for a total of 260 weeks. A few years later it was revived briefly, with Sinclair Lewis acting in it.

Look at those numbers again--18 cities, 23 companies, 260 weeks--in a country with less than half of today's population. Those desperate days were clearly different, but the Federal Theatre Project remains a model of the kinds of theatre that can be done, as well as what courage and dedication can do. It is also a model for government supported theatre with minimal censorship, and for what the U.S. still lacks---anything resembling a national theatre, and arguably, an American theatre.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cornerstone Theatre's Jason in Eureka combined a contemporary story with the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, from this 19th century book. So how did that work out? See the review below.

Jason in Eureka: Story Power

As noted earlier, there were four openings this past weekend on North Coast stages. For my North Coast Journal column, I get an 850 words, about twice a month. So in this week's issue I reviewed two shows, and will do the other two next week. What follows is a longer version of what I wrote about Cornerstone Theatre's Jason in Eureka, based on its opening night Thursday. It closed with its third performance Saturday.

Under uncertain clouds on a warm August evening, the crowd standing inside the entrance to the Blue Ox Millworks Historic Park heard a witty prologue concerning Jason and the Golden Fleece, performed by a barbershop quartet (the Millworks’ chief, Eric Hollenbeck, sang bass), assisted by a puppet show.

Then a funeral scene on a grassy hill to the left, where a young man on his cell phone learns from his lawyer that he has just inherited a Victorian house in Eureka (“C and Cedar—that area”) from the mysterious great-great aunt now being buried. The mythological theme was sounded again, and there to the right, high on the prow of the Millwork’s historic wooden ship, was Jason himself.

Then the audience was led farther into the park, to the bleachers in front of the large stage where in the quickening darkness the collaborative production of Jason in Eureka unfolded, captained by the Los Angeles based Cornerstone Theater.

As directed by Laura Woolery, half the action was set in the street facing the century-old Victorian house in contemporary Eureka, where the young heirs, John and his wife Maggie, decide to clean out its legacy of old books and make substantial repairs so they can live there. Born in Eureka, John recently lost his timber mill job. Maggie works at HSU. That she’s Wiyot figures profoundly in the ensuing story. They meet neighbors and various others, including those responding to the stranger sleeping in the yard, a silent veteran named Jason.

He is of course the link to the alternating half of the play, which depicts the classic quest of Jason and the Argonauts for the golden fleece. The contemporary Jason is looking for “gold,” too, which causes Maggie some concern, with its reminders of the Gold Rush.

Playwright and founding Cornerstone member Peter Howard used months of interviews and other encounters in Eureka for the contemporary story, and adapted the Jason story from a book for children by Victorian author Charles Kingsley, partly because it was written in the Gold Rush era of Eureka’s birth. (Kingsley is also notable for the phrase “Westward Ho!,” the title of his novel that includes a search for gold in the Americas.)

With Howard’s skillful script but also the elegant scenic design by Nephelie Andonyadis (including a delightfully old-fashioned “wave machine”), clever prop designs and especially the acting, singing and stage movement, these two stories together made ragged magic.

Most of the music and movement and other more theatrical elements were featured in the Jason and the Argonauts story, while the contemporary story was more naturalistic, and chatty. Stylistically, the theatricality along with characters making declarative statements suggested an evening out of the 1930’s Federal Theatre Project: Greek myth meets The Cradle Will Rock. But its content was more careful (so politically balanced that one character expressed sentiments on both sides of the recent Timber Wars) and relentlessly positive. Everyone’s individual quest is honored, beginning with the community’s response to the homeless Jason.

What this is about ultimately is the power of story to help define a community to itself. It combines local facts and testimony with an outsider perspective--much as a journalist might, who asks questions, listens and senses a pattern or story, tests it with more questions and probing, and then shapes it all into a narrative that allows for contradictions and ambiguity. In this case, it is a story that finds a pattern in linking Eureka's past to its future.

It is perhaps a failure of North Coast journalism that this journey was not better documented, so the larger community could participate, absorb this story and test it against other stories. But some version of that will probably occur, especially among the participants and the participating organizations: Blue Ox Millworks, Ink People Center for the Arts, Sanctuary Stage and local schools.

The triumph of this complex collaboration can only be symbolized by the onstage ease and energy of Cornerstone’s Helen Sage Howard (as Maggie), North Coast community theatre’s Sam Cord (Jonathan) and 6th grader Joana Barragan Carrillo (a neighbor girl), each seeming to inspire the other. Adina Lawson, who teaches theatre at Eureka High as well as acting in community theatre, seemed to be having a great time working with the Cornerstone actors and amateur actors in the Argonaut segments. In the contemporary story, Rob Hepburn of Veterans for Peace brought particular reality to the part of Dennis, a local veteran leader. In general, the "non-actors" worked well within the play, and whatever Cornerstone has learned to do to help them do so, seemed to work pretty well.

To name many more isn’t possible: the program has 65 individual bios, ranging from local grade schoolers to elders with no previous experience, to North Coast community theatre veterans, and Cornerstone Institute participants. This local participation included scenic and technical duties.

Dan Stone’s flawless technical direction is just one North Coast contribution to brag on. But those who witnessed Peter DiMuro’s enchanting choreography, or Cornerstone actors like Andres Munar (playing both Jasons), Sage Howard, Brandon Spooner, M.C. Earl and singer Michele Denise Michaels may well have future reason to brag that they saw them here.

All of this plus the outdoor setting made “Jason in Eureka” an enthralling theatrical experience. However, 90 minutes without intermission trapped in bleachers a dark distance from portajohns was probably more than should be asked of even a North Coast audience.

With this weekend, Cornerstone leaves the North Coast, but besides the experiences of participants and audience, it leaves behind the example of its beliefs, summarized in its "Values Statement": "We believe society can flourish when its members know and respect one another, and we value theater made in that spirit. We value art that is contemporary, community-specific, responsive, multilingual, innovative, challenging, and joyful. We value theater that directly reflects the audience. We value the artist in everyone."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

A very busy opening weekend, especially for August: This is the only weekend for the Cornerstone Theater production, Jason in Eureka at the Blue Ox Millworks Historic Park, with a cast of around 35, mostly from the North Coast. This site-specific production runs August 6, 7 and 8th with an 8:30 start, but the audience is asked to assemble by 8.

Ferndale Rep opens the Gothic musical thriller Jekyll and Hyde, based on the famous Robert Louis Stevenson story, tonight. The run of weekends includes four Sunday matinees, and ends with one on August 30. Information and reservations: 786-5483.

Redwood Curtain presents Fiction by Steven Dietz, a contemporary drama about a couple sharing more secrets than maybe they should, at the Arcata Playhouse on August 7, with weekend performances through August 22, including a matinee on Sunday the 16th. 443-7688.

Also on Friday, the Humboldt Light Opera opens Light on the Piazza, directed by Jean Bazemore, at the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus, at 7:30 pm. It runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 pm until August 22.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Hard Travelin


Woody Guthrie, bard of the Great Depression, a time that became the subject of a recent Dell'Arte creation, and some personal research, as told in the post below.

Talking Great Depression Blues

I saw the Dell'Arte original show about the Great Depression, called The Body Remembers, shortly after returning from a visit back home to western Pennsylvania. While I was there, my sisters and I sorted through several boxes of photos and documents, some unopened since each of my parents died (my mother in 1974, my father in 1990.) There were some photos from the 1940s and 30s, and also three letters my father received at his CCC Camp in 1940--one from a hometown buddy who was in another CCC camp, and two from his mother--my paternal grandmother, who died several years before I was born.

My father rarely talked about his past, but whenever there was an economic recession or other economic problem in the news, I could pretty much count on him saying that what they ought to do is revive the CCCs. I've since read about the CCC and other New Deal programs, but those letters provided something more specific: the role they played in my father's life, part of which led to me.

The Civil Conservation Corps was a program that employed young men (starting at 17 or 18) in conservation projects all over America. The projects were developed by the Interior Department, but the Corps was run by the Army. Young men lived in Army-style camps, were provided with food, clothing and shelter, and paid a small wage, most of which was automatically sent back to their families. Between 1934 and 1943, some 3 million men cumulatively worked in more than 4,000 camps.

From the letters we learned that my father was in a camp in Blain, Pennsylvania, a few hundred miles from his home in United, PA. Some guys got sent thousands of miles away, often to the West, but that may have mostly been earlier in the program. His friend was in a camp even closer to home, in the Laurel Highlands, not far from where one of my sisters now lives. There were apparently about 150 guys at my father's camp (though 300 was the norm), and they were building Big Spring state park. The camp was very isolated, probably as far into the woods as he'd ever been (or ever would be again). But besides a military schedule and discipline, they had activities--sports teams that competed with other camps, for example. His friend was closer to a town (Somerset) and so seemed to have a lively social life.

My father's hometown was built by the United Coal and Coke Company, and his father and grandfathers were (or had been) coal miners. Mines were closing in the 30s, and there were big and violent strikes in the 20s and 30s, that got the miners essentially nothing. There were few jobs, no money and no future there.

The plight of the miners in the area was so severe that the FDR administration built one of a few experimental communities there. They built new houses (with a novelty in the area: indoor plumping) and started cooperative farms and eventually a small garment factory. It came to be called "Norvelt," the last syllables of Eleanor Roosevelt's name, after she came to visit it. Locals apparently just called it the homestead.

The homestead is mentioned in my grandmother's letters, though they didn't get to live there. They were still in United. By 1940 Norvelt was changing, and people who lived there were being asked to buy their houses rather than rent them. But I also learned about Norvelt on this trip because there was an article in the local newspaper while I was there: this summer was Norvelt's 75th anniversary. And as it happens, one of my sisters now works for a small business that's housed in the very building that used to be the Norvelt coop garment factory.

At issue in the letters in 1940 was what my father was going to do next. Apparently his hitch was up, and there was anxiety about losing the money he was bringing in. The family was saving to buy their house. The letters left the matter unresolved, but they fit with something else I saw many years before. It was a mimeographed, stapled newspaper, and inside it was my father's name, as editor-in-chief. Probably my mother dug it out and gave it to me, when I started my string of editors jobs in junior high. My father never mentioned it. I've examined it since, though at the moment I've lost track of it again.

It was the publication of the "self-governing community" called Armor City, a National Youth Administration work experience project in South Charleston, West Virginia. It was another federal project under the umbrella of the Works Project Administration. It seemed to be very much like the CCCs, except this was for slightly older young men, and it's purpose was to train them for jobs in industry, not the woods. Eventually it was training them for jobs in national defense, and judging from other information about South Charleston at the time, that's what my father was probably doing. There was a big naval munitions plant in South Charleston. My father was there in 1941 and apparently still there in 1943, when he was called home for his mother's last illness. Soon after, he got a good paying job in industry, in a plant in Youngwood, PA that made military instruments. That's also where he met the young woman who would become his wife and my mother.

I grew up with some tales from the Depression, on both sides of the family, as well as from the lives of parents and grandparents of school friends, and total strangers. I got more interested in it all in the 60s, thanks in part to Bob Dylan being so interested in Woody Guthrie. And of course, Arlo. I've heard stories since--Steve Allen told me a few--and read many more. It's important in terms of what individuals and families went through, though I would stop short of calling those who lived through it and are still alive "Depression survivors," as some of the Dell'Arte publicity did. It sounds too much like "Holocaust survivors," which is a different order of experience. It also tends to distance us from it.

That era is also important in other ways. Another of the WPA programs was the Federal Theatre Project, which not enough theatre people know enough about. I hope to write a little about that on this blog soon. For now, I'll add what I wrote about the Dell'Arte production in the NC Journal, which ends with a statement that suggests what I've just gone on about:


For their Dell’Arte School thesis project, Brian Moore and Liza Bielby explored the 1930s Great Depression experiences of Timber Ridge Assisted Living Center residents, partly inspired by Stud Terkel’s oral history, Hard Times. The result is The Body Remembers, presented most recently as part of the Mad River Festival.

Moore was the appealing onstage host, but the stars were five women from Timber Ridge: Arline Hubbard, Helen Buck, Antoinette Cusumano (a spry 96 years old), Theo Feeney and Dawn Lucchesi. Their stories were supplemented by audio and some often effective but disappointingly projected photos and video.

True to their training, the Dell’Arteans used a variety of physical techniques to unlock and express memories, and to incorporate movement on the stage. The depth of their research and the honing and editing they did were evident and admirable. Together with the enthusiasm of the stars, it all resulted in some lovely moments, and memories that were surprisingly moving because they were otherwise so mundane. The remembered reality could be riveting as well, as in the ordinary photo of happy young adults at the beach. All the men in the photo died within a few years, in World War II.

If the pitfall for Cornerstone is seeming presumptuous, for this production it was being condescending to these elders, but that didn’t happen. Several Dell’Arte students assisted onstage, and the respectful, affectionate intergenerational flow characterized the evening.

The Depression experiences of these women spanned the country, though few were specific to the North Coast. Even though the show was shaped to these particular women, I would have liked a larger historical context (as Terkel provides) for the Great Depression, and more about male experiences. For example, there was audio of a man’s voice mentioning, “hobo—ing…We went any place just to be going some place.” How many people know now that at the height of the Depression, hopping freight trains to look for illusory jobs became this hopeless constant motion, and more than a million (mostly) men were perpetually riding the rails? Terkel is a good guide to the 1930s, but so is Woody Guthrie.

Those days are alive in my own family history, and some final lines in this show sounded similar to something my maternal grandmother used to say: “You just do the best you can, and that’s what we did.”