Sunday, October 23, 2011

 There were problems—bureaucracy, all kinds of conflict, censorship and internal politics.  Federal Theatre in California provides examples of all the dynamics.  The structure of Federal Theatre was federal: the policies and final decisions were set in Washington, but states and individual theatre projects had local power.  But the Project itself was within the WPA, and the state WPA administrators had power.  In southern California it was a Colonel Connolly who ran his WPA with military discipline.  However at first he gave administrative responsibility to theatre people, and together with Hallie Flanagan they worked out a plan that (she wrote) was "the clearest and least expensive" and "was responsible for what was for the next two years one of the most vigorous Federal Theatres."

It happened so quickly that the first Federal Theatre show in the U.S. to be staged in a real theatre and charge admission opened in Los Angeles.  Together with units in San Diego, San Francisco and Oakland, California had everything: classics, modern plays, historical plays, contemporary plays (a musical satire of dictatorship), black theatre, dance drama, plays in French and Yiddish, children's theatre, revues, vaudeville, and the "Theatre of the Magic Strings" marionettes.  Shows were popular and lauded in reviews, even in Variety.

kids line up to see Alice in Wonderland in San Diego

But there was also accusations of immorality and subversion, and internally of theft and misappropriation of funds.  Everything was investigated, nothing was true.  Rivalries and jealousies joined a growing national undercurrent of suspicion (immorality and subversion again), until Colonel Connolly took control.  A play by Elmer Rice called (with uncomfortable irony) Judgment Day was cancelled, and Flanagan warned that she considered it censorship and would say so publicly.  It then became uncancelled, but postponed.  California productions began to turn towards musical theatre, though several superior productions were mounted.

The final glory of the California Project--and in some ways of the Federal Theatre--was at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco, where some of the best of Federal Theatre (together with Music) was displayed, to enormous audiences and acclaim:  the Living Newspaper's One-Third of a Nation, the hit musical of the black theatre, Run, Little Chillun, a marionette version of Snow White, the dance theatre's American Exodus. But soon a new state WPA administrator tied everything in knots, a few incompetent people were appointed, and that was the end of California Federal Theatre.

Most of the 12,700 Federal Theatre employees at its
height worked backstage, like these seamstresses
All of this had happened in one way or another elsewhere in the country.  Administrators and local politicians who saw FTP as an opportunity to provide jobs for their favorites, and were disappointed,  wounded or killed their projects.  A single untrue rumor--that a show in a CCC camp featured a fan dancer--resulted in the entire state of Minnesota abandoning Federal Theatre.  There was no Federal Theatre unit in Washington, D.C., partly because no play was considered non-controversial enough to risk certain Congressman seeing it.  And so on.   

But mostly, in the end, the Federal Theatre Project was destroyed after just four years by external politics, by the same forces that would return to create the Blacklist and McCarthyism.

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