Sunday, October 23, 2011

The two people most directly responsible for the Federal Theatre Project were Harry Hopkins, the Roosevelt advisor who ran the WPA, and Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theatre’s first and only administrator. They were midwesterners, and had been classmates at a small liberal arts college in Iowa, Grinnell College, where the arts were considered part of the fabric of life and knowledge. After a stint at Harvard studying playwriting, Flanagan returned to teach drama at Grinnell and became one of the first women to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, which she used to observe how theatre was done in European countries, including Russia, during a most creative period.

She then taught at Vassar, where she developed experimental theatre productions. She had just returned from another tour of European theatre, in Italy and Greece, when Harry Hopkins called her to Washington. Hopkins knew theatre and knew her work, but more surprisingly, so did Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. He knew about her because he’d been a Vassar trustee.

But she was doubtful she was the right person, and a little overwhelmed. Hopkins persisted, and brought her to a gathering of people already involved in the Federal Art, Music and Writers Projects. They all had spent some time in small towns, and they talked about the music teachers who had never heard a symphonic orchestra, the drama teachers and the children who had never seen a professionally performed play. She was impressed that none of them doubted that she would find talented actors and other theatre professionals on the relief rolls, capable of creating good theatre, and taking it everywhere. Hallie Flanagan joined up.

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