Free Theatre! (Courtesy of Uncle Sam)

All photos taken by the Works Progress Administration of the Federal Theatre Project, ca. 1937


Dawn at a Park. This trailer truck, holding a complete theater, is drawn to a New York park for one of the Works Progress Administration Portable Theater presentations.


The Stage Unfolds. The Portable Theater gives nineteen performances a week. After the play everything is put away and a tractor unit hauls the trailer to a new park site for the next day’s performance.


Props Come Out.  Right — The technical men arrive and the stage begins to emerge from its cocoon. The repertory for the summer of 1936 includes four plays being presented free in nineteen of the city parks.


Stage Hands.  Right –The wings and the proscenium taking form.


Voila! A Theater is Completed. The stage is ready, with footlights, baby spots, curtain, back drop, scenery and loud-speaking apparatus.


The Sound Crew Tunes UP and Tests the Loudspeakers. Theses shows play to an average weekly audience of 120,000 adults and children.


Making Up in the Portable Theater Dressing Room. Players are from the Federal Theater Project for New York City. These girls are from the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ company.


All Eyes. A new theater-conscious generation is being created here.

After the stock market crash of 1929 and world’s headlong dive into what would become the Great Depression, the newly inaugurated American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, quickly established the first New Deal (1933–35) as a step towards economic recovery. Failing to address the problems of the Depression, such as weak consumer demand due to falling wages and unemployment, Roosevelt established the 2nd New Deal (1935–1943).

Although some of the programs devised in the 2nd New Deal ended by the onset of WWII, many continue today, such as the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. One program, which did not continue but has had a long and profound life through the artifacts left behind, is the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Established to provide jobs for millions left unemployed, the WPA built bridges, roads, airports, hospitals, and schools. Amidst these programs, primarily aimed at the labor force, was a program called Federal Project Number One (Federal One), aimed at painters, photographers, writers, and actors that enabled them to paint, document, write, and perform throughout the country. With an unemployment rate as high as 25%, these new programs created by the 2nd New Deal represented a bold support and faith in the arts and came with the real financial backing of $27,000,000 of the $4,800,000,000 made available by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. Devised to employ artists, the programs of the Federal One were also meant to alleviate the dampening spirits of families scarred by hardship.

One of these programs under the umbrella of Federal One was the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which hired theatre professionals to create and perform. ($6,784,036 of $27,000,000 was allotted to the FTP). In order to serve a wide geographic area and to provide employment to a larger number of rural professionals, the FTP toured. As a result, communities with little or no access to the theatre were enriched with free, live professional performances.

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1 Response to Free Theatre! (Courtesy of Uncle Sam)

  1. Pingback: A precursor to our Fluxwagon | Idiot String

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