Works Progress Administration & Genealogy: Federal Theatre Project

Like its companion organization on Art, the WPA Federal Theatre Project was very successful in its output, but politically it ran aground in 1939 when the House Committee on Un-American Activities pulled its funding.

As with the other WPA projects, the main goal of this project was to provide employment to those out of work during the Depression, primarily those whose jobs were related in some way the the theater – everything from writers to vaudeville performers to stage hands.

Actors Orson Welles and John Houseman were part of this project, which was most active, not surprisingly, in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The NARA Web Guide for the Theatre project is a bit more robust than those for the Art and Music programs.

That is partly due to the back link to the Poster collection, which showcases many of the theatre programs, and the short bibliography at the end of the online resources.

There are also links in the Web Guide to collections housed outside of the Library of Congress, to educational resources, which will supplement historical knowledge and a short bibliography of further resources, not digitally accessible.

Other Resources

NARA’s Record Group 69 features materials pertaining to the WPA, including a few video clips of movies created. Some of these films were just news items about the project. However, the few I sample were visually not of great quality and there was no sound.

Wikipedia has a lengthy article about the Federal Theatre Project, which features sections on African American Theater, Dance and Drama and Foreign Language productions. There is a list of external links at the bottom of the article, offering more about the history of the Federal Theatre Project and to sites that houses collections pertaining to it.

UCLA has a finding aid for the Federal Theatre Project Scripts and Publications, 1936-1939, which is quite lengthy.

Here are several more historical links:

Federal Theatre Project (Negro Units)

Federal Theatre Project (FTP) (1935)

“Propaganda for Democracy”: The Vexed History of the Federal Theatre Project

JSTOR ($19 to download) offers a three-page article:
A User’s Guide to the Federal Theatre Project

Although this project was most prolific in big cities, there were local groups active in smaller towns. Be sure to check local repositories like historical societies, state archives and even public libraries for information about any activities in your location of interest.

Next in this series is the Federal Writers Project.

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