How theatre helped America out of the Great Depression

And reinvented itself in the process

One third of a nation…a cast of 120 and seen by millions during The Great Depression

Would you believe that theatre employed up to 12,000 people in the USA during the Great Depression, that it was mostly free, and  – get this – the producer was the US Government?

In some ways it made sense. According to the digital exhibition, The Show Must Go On – American Theatre in the Great Depression, theatre was the main entertainment for most people before the Great Depression. In 1927 alone, 250 shows were presented to an audience of an estimated 20 million.

The economic collapse of the Depression was a double blow to the industry, which was already competing with the “talkies”.

In 1932, incoming President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Initiative and the Federal Theatre Project aimed to keep theatre professionals working until the economy recovered, providing $6.7 million to bring theatre to the masses.

Actor, director and Vassar Professor Hallie Flanagan was charged with running the program, and set out to bring cutting-edge quality theatre to those who had never seen it.

From 1935 to 1939, she created a network of regional theatres and produced almost 64,000 performances seen by more than 30 million people around the country. 

The Federal Theatre Project also encouraged racial integration and enabled other marginalised voices to take to the stage, creating units of the Negro Theatre Project in 23 cities.

Flanagan’s aim was to produce theatre that educated and informed ordinary people. Following the German director Edwin Piscator’s idea of taking real-life stories from newspapers, the FDR employed journalists and theatre makers to dramatise important issues of the day, through The Living Newspaper program.

In Flanagan’s words, these aimed to “dramatise a new struggle – the search of the average American today for knowledge about his (sic) country and his world. To dramatise his struggle to turn the great natural and economy forces of the time toward a better life for more people”.

The plays frequently featured a character known as the Little Man, who represented the ordinary citizen, and who commented on the proceedings throughout.

Amazingly, some of the scripts that were produced for the Living Newspaper Federal Theatre Project are available to download from the Federal Theatre Project Materials Collection at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, including possibly its most famous work, One third of a nation by Arthur Arent.

The title of the play was based on a quote from President Roosevelt himself.

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished…The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

— Second inaugural address of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 20, 1937[1]

The play documents the failure of the Housing Act of 1937, where a $565 million housing program only managed to alleviate two per cent of New York’s slums.

 It ends with the Little Man and his wife vowing to continue to lobby the government until “everyone in America has a decent place to live”.

Like all Living Newspaper plays, it was based on extensive research. The script includes an eight-page bibliography and a cast of 120. (It was helpful that none of these plays were expected to make a profit.)

At its peak, the Federal Theatre Project employed 1500 costume and scenic designers, 10,000 actors rehearsing and playing in small professional productions in 62 cities to audiences of 500,000 every week all over the country.

Eventually, its left-wing focus brought it under suspicion of Communist influences and the money and support ran out.  

However its legacy was immense and it serves as an example of how, rather than be seen as an irrelevant burden, the arts can provide a way forward in an economic crisis.

As Flanagan herself said in The New York Times, shortly after the project was terminated:  “We know now what many doubted four years ago – that great numbers of people, millions of them, who had never gone to the theatre, or had stopped going, want to go to the theatre if the plays are good and the admission reasonable.”

Hallie Flanagan – National Director of the Federal Theatre Program during the Great Depression.

Taking its lead from the US Living Newspaper program, London’s Royal Court Theatre will create six editions of a Living Newspaper of its own in November, in response to the current pandemic. Weekly editions will be created and edited by a collective of writers and performed around the Royal Court building

The rise of The Independent Theatre in Australia

Doris Fitton, founder of Sydney’s Independent Theatre

The Australian Government during the Depression did not provide a similar economic lifeline. Indeed, its rejection of the Keynesian stimulus policies that were adopted by the UK and the US resulted in prolonged hardship in Australia compared to the rest of the world.

However Australian theatre responded to the crisis creatively according to the History of Australian Theatre (HAT) archive. While the big commercial theatres struggled, there was a rise in amateur productions, known as the “people’s theatre” movement.

In 1930 Sydney, actor and entrepreneur Doris Fitton, came up with the idea of a subscription fee of 10 shillings each from 20 fellow actors and friends to form The Independent Theatre, which continued until 1977 when Fitton, by then a formidable force in Australian theatre, was in her 80th year.

The Independent Theatre mostly presented plays that were considered uncommercial by the big theatre companies, encouraging Australian playwrights and introducing Australian audiences to contemporary international playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

The plays were produced on a shoestring budget with limited sets, in mostly small venues and ran for a limited time, until the company found a permanent home at the Miller Street Theatre in 1939.

Sound familiar? Independent theatre today continues to run on a similar model, producing small-cast works in intimate settings and relying heavily on subscribers for income.

The current pandemic has brought similar challenges to Australian theatre to those of the Great Depression – but not necessarily similar solutions.

The Australian Federal Government’s $250 million Recovery Program for Australian arts industry to “get back to business” has been regarded by many in the industry as too little too late.

Production closures caused by Covid-19 are yet another blow to the industry, which has struggled with punitive funding cuts in the past decade. In March alone, 33 arts organisations lost their Australian Council funding.

It will be interesting to see what changes result from the current pandemic, and whether, as in the Great Depression, the response enables new voices, new forms and new ideas.

So far, the creative reaction of theatre makers globally has resulted in an unexpected marriage (via Zoom) between two of our most popular artworks – theatre and a film.

Will it last? Perhaps, as in the Great Depression, theatre will rise to this new creative challenge and new forms of theatre will be a permanent part of the artistic landscape in Australia and throughout the world?

Perhaps. But it would be worth a standing ovation if the Morrison government took a leaf out of FDR’s book and saw the arts as the solution rather than the problem.

Are you enjoying new and old art forms during lockdown? Have your say about the benefits of the arts and the impact of Covid-19 on the industry: