AMERICAN THEATRE | So What Could a ‘New Federal Theatre Project’ Actually Look Like?

“Melodies on Parade,” one of the Federal Theatre Project’s original musical revues, in FTP’s Caravan Theater in Crotona Park in the Bronx, c. 1936. (Photo from the Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)

For more on the current call for increased arts funding, see this story.

To this day, when Greg Reiner (he/him) sees the name of Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan, he pictures Cherry Jones, the actress who portrayed Flanagan in Tim Robbins’s film on the arts in the 1930s, Cradle Will Rock. Having worked at Robbins’s ensemble company, the Actors’ Gang, in Los Angeles, many of whose members were involved in the film, Reiner holds both the movie and the story of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) close to his heart.

In fact, when Reiner was later working as executive director of Tectonic Theater Project, it was the FTP that served as an inspiration for The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, which took the idea of opening the same show in multiple cities on the same night and expanded it to cover 150 theatres across the country.

Greg Reiner. (Photo by Da Ping Luo)

“It’s something I’ve thought about basically for my entire career,” said Reiner, who now works as the theatre and musical theatre director for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). So his attention was certainly piqued by recent pieces advocating for a redux of that historic governmental mobilization for the arts in the face of another global economic collapse, which have appeared everywhere from Late Night With Seth Meyers to these pages.

“But my first thought when I was reading about all of this dialogue about a ‘new Federal Theatre Project’ was, of course, that everyone means something different when they are saying ‘Federal Theatre Project.’”

At its core, the Federal Theatre Project was a works program, part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. FTP put thousands of artists back to work over the course of its four years of existence, from 1935 to its abrupt end on June 30, 1939, when it was disbanded by the U.S. Congress, in part amid accusations of political bias that would metastasize into the Red Scare. It seems clear enough what those calling for a new FTP have in mind now: We’re in the middle of a pandemic, theatres have been closed for nearly a full year at this point, with many more months to go at least. While the economy in general teeters in an a precarious place, arts workers are, as The New York Times put it, in a full-blown Great Cultural Depression. Theatremakers desperately need to get back to work.

The first obvious obstacle to that, and the first key difference between now and the context of the Great Depression, is that for the time being most live, in-person theatre can’t happen at all. So the calls for a new FTP are borne partly of theatremakers’ quest for immediate relief in a downtime. But they are also driven by their pursuit of new models outside business as usual; this moment of crisis, they feel, is an opportunity to change the conversation about the arts and its workers. Clarity on how these two urgent impulses—relief now, structural changes for the long term—intersect and support each other is crucial if advocates are to present a unified front and plan of action.

For historian Charlotte Canning (she/her), who directs the Oscar G. Brockett Center for Theatre History and Criticism at the University of Texas at Austin, FTP is a useful historical touchstone, if not quite the right fit for this moment. More than simply a works program, she pointed out, the FTP was also an audience service, bringing theatre to populations throughout the country where theatre hadn’t really been, seeding the regional theatre movement and inspiring many of the theatre leaders who would be on the forefront of that movement, which gave us the national nonprofit theatre scene we know today. FTP also long predated the NEA, established in 1965, not to mention the legal framework that allowed theatres to be classified as tax-exempt, charitable 501(c)(3) nonprofits.

Charlotte M. Canning.

“The Federal Theatre Project was designed for a specific set of theatre circumstances that no longer exists,” Canning said. Not that Canning is against the idea that “theatre should get some huge amount of public support. Frankly, if the Federal Theatre Project’s general idea becomes a useful rallying cry, I think that’s an entirely productive use of history.”

A rallying cry. A drum for theatre artists across the country to beat. All this is positive. But behind every rally are goals that are being rallied toward. What would something like a new Federal Theatre Project actually look like? How would it work? As Reiner pointed out, recommendations will vary, though every person I spoke to echoed a similar aim: All would like to see a reinvigoration and rededication of theatres to the local communities they serve.

It’s a framing that the Chicagoan in me appreciates, as I wonder and worry about the financial stability of Chicago’s once-vibrant non-Equity storefront theatre scene. That’s not to say the larger regional theatres don’t need or don’t deserve federal support, of course. But one of the beautiful aspects of the FTP was that it brought theatre—specifically theatre that spoke to the news and events of the day via programs like the Living Newspaper—to areas where it hadn’t previously taken root.

It’s easy to assume that the robust regional theatre scene we have today has already accomplished the FTP’s goal of spreading the art form out across the country. After all, there are major regional theatres in every state (give or take). So obviously, a new FTP would just send them money to pay theatremakers to get back to work, right? But look closely at any city, let alone outside the major urban centers, and it’s easy to see the gaps. These take the form of prohibitive ticket prices, inaccessible locations, and even just the lack of a true connection between some theatres and their communities.

The Federal Theatre Project’s “The Revolt of the Beavers” in 1937. (George Mason University Libraries Special Collections & Archives)

Lear deBessonet (she/her), artistic director of New York City Center’s Encores!, equated the real potential of significant federal investment to Coca Cola’s 1927 slogan, “Around the Corner From Everywhere.” DeBessonet’s vision of an FTP-type program is one where community arts centers would commission and produce theatre tailor-made for their communities. This work could employ community partnerships between the arts and schools, restaurants, hospitals, and parks and recreation departments, among others, to create a bond between a local community’s ecology and professional artists and their art.

Lear deBessonet.

“That has been part of my work as a community-based theatre practitioner,” said deBessonet, who founded the Public Theater’s Public Works program, “noticing the way that participation in the arts—not just attending as an audience member, but actually getting to holistically participate in both watching and making—produces the most profound transformation in individuals’ lives.”

With an emphasis on local community, deBessonet offered the idea of decentralizing federal funds—assuming, of course, there are federal funds to work with—which would allow states and local communities to determine how best to disseminate them in their communities’ best interests. It’s an idea that she wrote to President Joe Biden to pitch, as well as including it as part of the Be an Arts Hero letter writing campaign.

This echoes a notion brought up by Canning, who said she favored the model of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) of the 1970s over that of the FTP—though she conceded that doesn’t sound as catchy as calling for a new “Federal Theatre Project.” CETA grew on top of a city program in San Francisco called the Neighborhood Arts Program, established in 1967 with funding from the local arts commission to refocus the arts on neighborhood community centers and work that reflected the community’s cultural identities. With local artists offering workshops, performances, and other services in cultural centers and community settings, hundreds of local artists were employed. The program went on to inspire many similar models across the country and would later receive funds from CETA, which was signed into law in 1973 with the intention of training workers and putting them to work in public service.

The beauty in the government supporting this kind of local, community-based work is that it has the potential to break theatres out of a troublesome funding model that necessitates they work to find and keep the support of wealthy individuals to survive.

“The nonprofit model requires that,” deBessonet said of the need for outside funding. “If the goal is for nonprofits to have stakeholders that match the census of the city where they live—I don’t think that’s possible under our current nonprofit structures, because again, they’re too dependent on individual wealth. I believe many of our regional theatres want to do this but are trapped. So what would it mean if nonprofits didn’t have to chase money provided by rich people? What could they do to actually meet their cities?”

Unfortunately, at the moment, even the budget for the NEA is, as one lawmaker put it to Deb Clapp (she/her), executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, “budget dust”—so minuscule that it barely makes a difference to the federal budget. Indeed, the NEA’s $162 million budget comprises just 0.011 percent of the federal government’s approximately $1.5 trillion discretionary budget.

Clapp noted one concern worth acknowledging—that if the federal budget for the arts were to increase significantly, it could become a political target when lawmakers search for budget cuts. But, she said, the benefits of such funding would easily outweigh that risk.

Deb Clapp. (Photo by Kimmy Noonen)

“This will be a time when theatres are rethinking the ways in which they do work,” Clapp said, noting that during this industry-wide sea change, financial support could bolster new models for theatremaking. “People are talking about things like pay equity and how it really changes the way they’re building their budgets. Ultimately, that’s going to change the way they do their work.”

Clapp has her own ideas for how theatres could use more robust funding to recenter their work on local communities. Clapp recalled a grant proposal that would have had five pandemic-shuttered theatres in Chicago engage with a theatre artist, be that a director, actor, or playwright. That artist would then be asked to engage with three other artists from any discipline to work collaboratively on a project that speaks to and addresses the current moment. The idea was to create works that were in dialogue with the events going on in Chicago, created and performed by local Chicago artists, and during a time of scarce work for all artists. (In the end, the League did not receive the grant. Looking back, Clapp admits that it would have been a heavy organizational lift for their limited staff.)

“The way arts funding traditionally works in this country, at every level of government, is that it goes to large cultural institutions and that money may—or may not—trickle down to work opportunities for artists.”

For her, as for many, there are long-term foundational benefits to significant dedicated funds from the federal government. But the pressing issue at the moment is that many artists are out of work right now, and for some time to come. The reality is that theatres likely won’t be roaring back to life any time soon. Even New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s arts revival program’s Creatives Rebuild initiative states that it “will put back to work 1,000 artists who have been impacted,” as well as invest in dozens of small arts organizations. As Jeffrey Omura (he/him), an actor, labor leader, and candidate for New York City Council who is also on Actors’ Equity’s national council, pointed out, there are roughly 20,000 Equity members in the New York City metro area alone, not even taking into consideration the rest of the state. The need, he said, is far greater than what has been proposed.

“Almost my entire community has been out of work,” Omura said, “and the thing we need most right now is work. The way arts funding traditionally works in this country, at every level of government, is that it goes to large cultural institutions and that money may—or may not—trickle down to work opportunities for artists.”

Jeffrey Omura.

Omura proposes the creation of a vast relief fund, not be funded by the city or state but by a public effort to approach 10 major media and tech companies—the Apple, Google, Amazon, Disney, Comcast, etc., of the world—and ask them for 0.2 percent of their cash on hand to go to a relief fund. The result, Omura reasoned, would be an arts and culture relief fund surpassing $1 billion. As a reference point, Apple’s cash on hand alone is $195.57 billion, meaning they’d add in over $391 million to Omura’s proposed plan—more than double the NEA’s total budget.

“These are companies that have done extraordinarily well during the pandemic,” Omura said. “We’ve seen it with the big tech and media companies, especially as they all have streaming services and we’ve been stuck at home with nothing to do but watch TV. They have been able to prosper using the talent that has been developed right here in New York City’s cultural institutions. And it’s not just the actors. It’s the writers, it’s the designers, it’s the musicians.”

Talent and content development doesn’t just happen in New York, of course. Clapp noted that states like Illinois have been very friendly to film and television production, encouraging productions to use the city, which is great for keeping talent in the city. But that talent wouldn’t even be there in the first place were Chicago not a major theatre and arts hub. Canning also joined the chorus calling for major companies and foundations to step up in tandem with federal funding, mentioning Disney as an example of a company that has seen some major successes in theatre.

“I think that most of the successful programs, particularly successful politically, have been ones that are somehow joint public and private initiatives,” said Canning. “Some of the larger commercial organizations have done very, very well by talent that’s been nurtured in the nonprofit sector, then gone into the commercial sector. The commercial sector makes a lot of money. Those companies should be giving back to the nonprofit sector in some sort of large-scale way.”

It’s worth noting that some artists have already begun to shape this reality on their own initiative. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris announced the creation of the Golden & Ruth Harris Commission, two $50,000 commissions that are being created from a discretionary fund through his deal with HBO, and Katori Hall’s deal with Lionsgate includes a fund to commission Black playwrights, who will also receive mentorship from Hall.

Apart from these individual efforts, these large companies have the capacity, but the scale of their commitment just isn’t there yet. Nor is it there from foundations. The combination of this shortfall, and the scarcity of government support, definitely puts a damper on some of the progress theatremakers have been seeking.

“I don’t think collectively we know how to talk about the fact that arts jobs are jobs.”

“When we talk about equity in funding,” Clapp said, “there has been a traditional disinvestment in theatres that are run by BIPOC, but also a disinvestment in those neighborhoods too. It can be about foundation funding, but here’s the thing: Foundation funding is never going to be enough. There needs to be government investment in a major way in order to achieve equity among these theatres. I can’t emphasize enough what a continued investment means to all arts organizations, but in particular to organizations that are run by BIPOC folks.”

Clapp pointed to her own organization’s foundation funding as an example. The League brings in around $200,000 from foundations out of its $1 million budget, which Clapp feels like is a lot in comparison to other organizations. But, she asked simply, “How do you run a theatre on that?”

So even if corporations were to independently step in and foundations were to increase their efforts, the central role of the federal government in arts support cannot be brushed aside. After all, it’s a bit ridiculous that there’s even a question politically of funding something enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their political affiliation. The government has a chance, amid its many other pressing priorities, to lead on this issue, and to send the strong message that the arts, and the people who make them, are worthy of support on par with our national parks, say, or public education. That message has the potential to reach foundations, private donors, and more to step up and support these artists as well.

In 2021, I want to hope that Congress is talking about the arts differently than they were when the Federal Theatre Project met its demise. After all, the NEA exists now, and multiple industry leaders see the potential for the NEA’s existing framework and standards to support the arts in a major way, should Congress significantly increase their budget (as well as the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities, while we’re talking about it). Indeed, Reiner mentioned that he’d be happy if the NEA could take on the task of distributing additional funds.

Still, there’s a fear that lawmakers may respond today as they once did in the late ’30s. In Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre, Flanagan’s stepdaughter, Joanne Bentley, quoted an unnamed congressman saying, “Culture! What the hell—let ’em have a pick and shovel.” The obvious implication was that the arts couldn’t possibly offer “real” jobs.

“I don’t think collectively we know how to talk about the fact that arts jobs are jobs,” said Reiner, who also said he would be happy if the NEA could take on the task of distributing additional funds, should Congress increase the endowment’s budget. “This is work. We do such a good job sometimes making it look like fun, and it’s a passion for people, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not work.”

Though it’s work that theatremakers are currently restricted from doing, let’s be clear: The drumbeat for a new Federal Theatre Project isn’t just about helping this industry survive the pandemic. The last 11 months have already seen theatres stepping (however tentatively) into new ways of working, evolving in part around the demands issued by We See You, White American Theatre and other activists. There is profound interest in revolutionizing how theatre functions, how it interacts with its communities, and how it can create healing art. This rallying cry goes beyond getting back to normal—a “normal” that already wasn’t working for so many artists and audiences. True, dedicated, extensive government support has the potential to fundamentally change the theatrical landscape forever.

“Take this moment to create meaningful change that acknowledges that where we were before this pandemic is not where we want to be in the future,” said deBessonet. “The way that the arts, and theatre specifically, have been operating in this country has not resulted in the full country having access to the arts. This can be a moment of change.”

Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor at American Theatre. [email protected] 

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