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A Rallying Call for the Arts in America

Theatre and Musical Theatre capstone cohort presents “A Call for a New Federal Theatre Project”

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The Cradle Will Rock Rehersal, Library of Congress.

In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty, as to the functions of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to all these forces, the theatre must grow up. The theatre must become conscious of the implications of the changing social order, or the changing social order will ignore, and rightly, the implications of the theatre.

These words, seemingly so appropriate for today’s arts, were actually spoken in 1935 by Hallie Flanagan to mark the inception of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). The FTP was a theatre program established during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal for two reasons: to financially support artists, and to fund artistic performances across the United States. The FTP, led by Flanagan, existed from just 1935-1939, but in its first year alone, it employed more than 15,000 people. The project would go on to sponsor performances in front of 30 million people in more than 200 theatres, as well as parks, schools, factories—anywhere that people could gather to enjoy the arts.

Now, more than eighty years after the Federal Theatre Project was shuttered, American University’s Theatre/Musical Theatre Program’s 2021 Senior Capstone has brought it back to life with two ambitious virtual performances of “A Call for a New Federal Theatre Project” on January 22 and 23.

The company of writers, directors, actors, designers, dramaturgs, and musicians developed and produced performances of works from and inspired by the FTP, along with a selection of companion research projects, inviting audiences to delve into uncanny resonances between the FTP and the immediate present.

The Making of a New FTP

The 2021 Theatre Senior Capstone cohort students have been working on the project since spring 2020, says Nathan Beary Blustein, performing arts professorial lecturer and co-director of the performance. “The students have been using theatre to explore how the problems and promise of the seemingly distant past resonate uncannily with daily life,” he says. “Collaboration lives in each of these ambitious projects. Sixteen seniors, two stage managers, and dozens of contributors beyond the class cohort: they have come together to offer visions of not only what an improbable and nearly ninety-year-old experiment means to them, but how we can meet and surpass its potential today.”

A Rallying Call

Blustein’s co-director, Jessica Wu, calls the production a rallying cry for the Arts in America to be given the respect and national support they deserve. “Despite being short-lived, the FTP was a shining model of how our American government could subsidize a nationwide theatre program and served as the basis upon which the National Endowment for the Arts was built,” Wu says. “Sadly, our NEA is ailing and our country’s public funding for theatre has become almost non-existent.”

For Wu, working with the AU theatre and musical theatre capstone class of 2021 to bring their pieces to life was a heartening creative and educational experience. “Making theatre during this pandemic has been a unique challenge that has stymied our professional theatrical world and some of the solutions our students came up with to create work in our remote times were nothing short of ingenious,” she says. “From their message, to their process, to their final products, I could not be more proud of our capstone cohort, their collaborators, and the incredibly inspiring work they’ve created together.”

Performances and Creators

Student Research