FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records from the Great Depression

Cath Madden Trindle

WPA Federal Theatre Project

1935 – 1939 (NARA 69.5.4)

Federal Theatre Project presents "Festival of American dance" featuring "An American exodus"

Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of a “Festival of American Dance” featuring “An American Exodus” at the Alcazar, showing a man and a woman dancing. (LOC Collections)

The primary goal of the Federal Theatre Project was to implement the reemployment of theater workers who were on public relief rolls, including actors, directors, playwrights, designers, vaudeville artists, and stage technicians.  A secondary goal was to make theater a vital part of community life, an art form that would continue to function after the FTP program was completed.

Theater projects were set up in towns where a number of theater professionals were unemployed.  At its largest, the Federal Theatre Project employed around 12,700 people. Over 90% of these employees came from the relief rolls.

Ninety percent of the FTP appropriation had to be spent on wages. About fifty per cent of FTP personnel were actors. Others were writers, designers, theater musicians, dancers, stage hands, box office staff, ushers, maintenance workers, and the business personnel necessary to operate the program in a way that would meet government standards.  There were theater companies in some forty cities in twenty two states. In order to reach the more rural areas some of the companies toured.  Classic plays shared the stage with those newly written for the project, puppet shows, dance reviews, children’s theater, ethnic theater, foreign plays and more.

Among the largest theater companies was the one in Los Angeles.  San Francisco and San Diego also had companies.

Photographic Print from San Francisco production of Power. Finding Aid Box 1182.

The University of Southern California and UCLA both have collections of scripts and other items relating to the theater project in the Los Angeles area. San Francisco Public Library history room has items relating to the program on Treasure Island. UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library has photographs for SF Bay area productions.  Check the OAC for other materials available in California.

Collections at the National Archives include among other things: correspondence, staging blueprints, specifics on certain productions, over 25,000 photographs, drawings and paintings of costumes and set designs, and posters.

The Federal Theatre Project Collection (Finding Aid), housed in the Library of Congress’ Performing Arts Reading Room, contains correspondence, memoranda, play and radio scripts, reports, research studies, manuals, publications, bulletins, forms, lists, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, charts, costume and set designs, blueprints, posters, addressograph plates, photographs, negatives, slides, playbills, and other records documenting the role of the Federal Theatre Project in laying the groundwork during the New Deal years for much innovation in the theater. (LOC Guide – Federal Theatre Project).  American Memory – FTP.

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Cath Madden Trindle
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