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THE FEDERAL THEATRE PROJECT

    Publishing Information

    Is This the Time and Place?

    Hallie Flanagan, Director of the Federal Theatre Project

    A speech delivered at the national office of the Federal Theatre Project, located in the McLean mansion in Washington D.C., on the occasion of the first national meeting of the regional directors of the Federal Theatre Project, October 5, 1935. The text of this speech is located in the Hallie Flanagan Davis Papers, Special Collections, Vassar College, Box 26, Folder 208

  1. This place in which we meet, at first glance so strangely inappropriate, becomes upon reflection one key to the situation, an epitome of one element in our American life which caused the situation.

  2. Here we meet to discuss the problem of thousands of artists, no longer able to live in America except on charity; we meet to form a plan whereby people will again become enough interested in the work of artists to make such work a salable commodity. Behind us, hidden by a discreet panel, there is a carved wood serving table, imported from Italy, which cost $25,000. At the end of the hall, again cautiously veiled from the vandal or the irreverent, a buffet which cost $32,000. The hideousness of the chandeliers in the great ballroom, the busts and statues in the court, the gold faucet on the gigantic bathtubs, are only equaled by their excessive cost. In short, the McLean mansion, like many similar edifices throughout America, is a monument to the period of American culture in which the value of a work of art was measured in terms of its cost and the distance from which it was imported.

  3. Irrespective of the merit of its art treasure, the McLean Mansion represents the conception of art as a commodity to be purchased by the rich, possessed by the rich, and shared on occasional Wednesday evenings with the populace who, gaping in ecstasy, were allowed to file past the accumulated treasures.

  4. During the first days in this house I was haunted by a sense of having gone through this experience before; gradually that memory became focussed upon the golden places of Soviet Russia now turned into offices and orphans' homes and theatres for the Russian proletariat. I remembered a theatre meeting in the great Hall of Mirrors in Leningrad where reflected from every side in those mirrors which once gave back the image of the Empress, and later the execution of her officers, I saw the faces of Stalin, Litvinov, Lunachaisky, Petrov and other leaders of political, educational and theatrical life. They met to discuss their mutual problem: how the theatre could serve in educating the people and in enriching their lives.

  5. I do not at this time wish to press the parallel or to argue as to its prophetic implications. I merely wish to say that the present state of this house, with typewriters clicking where once musicians played in the long galleries, with out of work painters and sculptors carefully averting their eyes from various art atrocities while they ask Mr. Cahill for jobs, is characteristic of the decline of a certain period in American art and life. For it is not only bad collections which have had their day, but all collections. Holger Cahill, director of the federal art project, came to this job after several years spent in disposing of art collections of the Morgans, and the Rockefellers, for whom he had previously assembled such collections. Mr. Cahill also feels that with the passing of the private art collections one whole period of American culture ends. Personally I cannot work up any regret over the demise. That works of art in America today should belong in small collections to individuals who care about them and share them with their friends, or to the museums, which are doing an increasingly good job of making art intelligible and exciting to everybody, seems to me a very satisfactory state of affairs.

  6. I only wish we had a method of play distribution as satisfactory: perhaps it is our job to find one.

  7. Unfortunately the theatre, more than any of the arts, still clings to the skirts of the 19th century. A recent advertisement in The Stage, for example, read:

    The first ten rows are the people, the alert, challenging people whose opinion makes or breaks a play. These are the people who possess the gowns, the jewels, the furs, the country estates, the town cars—in short all the appurtenances of fine living around which the smart world of the theatre revolves.

  8. In the economic fallacy of such a statement lies one reason for the decline of the stage.

  9. That the stage is in a decline is obvious. Mr. Lee Shubert said the other day, with a bewilderment which I found rather touching,

    Once the stage was the dog, and the movies were the tail; now the movies are the dog, and we are the tail.

    And who should know better than Lee Shubert?

  10. That the decline of the stage is not entirely due to the economic depression is one of the basic facts which we must consider. For if we attempt to put people back to work in theatre enterprises which are defunct, we are engaged in temporarily reviving a corpse which will never be alive again.

  11. All the plans for reviving the road seem to me to be born of this na´ve faith in resuscitation. Of course a great actress like Katharine Cornell touring the country in Romeo and Juliet will always have an audience; but the population of Oskaloosa, Iowa, or Fort Worth, Texas, is not going to be enraptured as in days of yore by a 3rd rate touring company in a mediocre play, just because such a company comes from New York. Oskaloos and Fort Worth have been educated by the cinema and the radio. They know a hawk from a hand saw. They no longer measure art by the distance from which it was imported.

  12. Our whole emphasis in the theatre enterprises which we are about to undertake should be on re-thinking rather than on remembering. The good old days may have been very good days indeed, but they are gone. New days are upon us and the plays that we do and the ways that we do them should be informed by our consciousness of the art and economies of 1935.

  13. We live in a changing world: man is whispering through space, soaring to the stars in ships, flinging miles of steel and glass into the air. Shall the theatre continue to huddle in the confines of a painted box? The movies, in their kaleidoscopic speed and juxtaposition of external objects and internal emotions are seeking to find visible and audible expression for the tempo and the psychology of our time. The stage too must experiment—with ideas, with psychological relationship of men and women, with speech and rhythm forms, with dance and movement, with color and light—or it must—and should—become a museum product.

  14. 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.

  15. Strategically, we are in a very fortunate position. Our liabilities, as is so often the case in life and art, are our assets. For we cannot subsidize existing theatrical enterprises, however excellent. The more fools we, then, if we model our new enterprises in the image of those now appealing to us for help. We cannot afford vast expenditures for scenery and costumes; another advantage, for scenery and costumes as we very well know have become too often the dog wagging the tail. We have plenty of designers—137 on relief rolls in New York City—we have a good many spot lights, and we have 250,000 yards of plain ticking in the government's surplus commodities; the result ought to be something pretty good, without benefit of Bergdorf-Goodman.

  16. We should not be fatuous enough however to think that it will all be beer and skittles. If we have 6,000 theatre people on relief we all know that probably 4,000 of them are not of the calibre to experiment. However, we must keep steadily in mind that we do not work with the 6,000 alone. We work also with the 600 whom we may choose to work with them; and with the 300 whom we choose to direct them; and with as many apprentices as we can absorb from the National Youth Administration, who are ready and willing to pay underprivileged youths from 16 to 25 for studying with the various art groups.

  17. Let us not, therefore, over emphasize the weaknesses of the material with which we work. Mr. Hopkins, in his last talk with the directors of the various art projects before he left on the western trip with President Roosevelt, reemphasized his position: that it was quality rather than quantity which was to be the keynote of the art program. He reaffirmed that we were to turn back to the employment service people who had no chance of making a living through the theatre after this project ends. That we were to bend our energies toward creating theatre units which would be so vital to community needs that they would continue to function after our funds are withdrawn. Our best efforts must be spent in finding intelligent and imaginative theatre plans, excellent direction and adequate sponsorship for such plans.

  18. Now how much has been accomplished so far? In order to answer that question, I should like to trace briefly the development of the project thus far.

  19. Early this year, President Roosevelt asked Congress to appropriate $4,800,000,000 for a Works Program. It immediately became known that a certain amount was to be spent for the relief of artists.

  20. Late in May I received a telephone message to come to Washington to give professional judgment on the plans submitted thus far for the relief of theatre people. I spent several days going over those plans, which were for the most part requests for the government to back certain theatre companies or theatre artists. There were many plans for reviving the road, a few for Shakespearean companies, national academies, or the like.

  21. The best plan which read at that time was one submitted by Elmer Rice, many elements of which are incorporated in our present plan. At that time I discussed with Mr. Hopkins and Mrs. Roosevelt the plan of the development of regional theatres, around the nucleus of existing theatres such as those represented here; a plan, which as you all know, had been advocated for years by George Pierce Baker, by Edith Iscair, Professor Koch, Professor Mabie, and many others. We discussed decentralization, the emphasis on experimental productions of new plays by unknown writers, and the limited touring, out of regional centers, of theatre units. In all of these plans, both the President and Mr. Hopkins are keenly interested. Work should have started then, but the abrupt termination of the N.R.A. made the W.P.A. officials decide to postpone all plans. Consequently it was not until September 10 that the bill allotting the money was actually stamped by the Comptroller of the Treasury. In the meantime, the 4 appropriations for the individual arts, were passed together as one project (Project I, W.P.A.). The total appropriation (which has never been broken up) was $27,000,000. This amount was for 6 months, though we are assured that a second allotment will carry us on through June 30.

  22. Though the allotment was stamped on September 10, it has only now, on October 5, Saturday, been passed to the various states. Thus, up until now, all work has necessarily been preliminary.

  23. The following steps in the F.T.P. have been taken:

  24. I.   The writing of some 2000 letters stating exactly what we can do with federal funds; i.e.,

    1. Pay labor costs of people from relief rolls at the prevailing security wag given at the local W.P.A. office.
    2. Pay the security wage for one person not on relief rolls for every nine who are.
    3. Pay small superintendence salaries of $1,000-$2,500 in the ratio of one administrator to 20 relief rolls.
    4. Pay 10% of the labor costs (1 and 2 above) for production costs.
    5. Allow admissions of 10 cents to $1.00 to accrue through the sponsor, to the theatre project.
  25. II.   The compilation of the general procedure of W.P.A. Project I, involving the exact method under which all federal art projects will operate.

  26. III.   The compilation of the theatre manual, involving the particular procedure of our own project, together with classification of workers, wage rates, royalties, admission, etc.

    This compilation involved conferences with statisticians, legal counsel, etc.

    Both of these bulletins will be explained in detail by Mr. Lang and Mr. Goldschmidt.

  27. IV.   Discussion of the F. T. Project with the following groups, in order to secure cooperation:

      The National Stage Hands Union.

      Several meetings were held in this office, one of which was attended by representatives of Actors Equity, Musicians' Union, and representatives of the Stage Hands' Unions from New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and one national representative. A representative from this group was put on the reclassification board in N. Y. The general attitude was friendly. The decision was that we cannot run a union shop, but that preference is given to union workers because of their professional qualifications.

    1. Actors' Equity.

      Many conferences, here and in New York, resulted in Equity offering not only advice and cooperation, but the sponsorship of one New York unity (repertory of plays important in American theatre history).

      Three meetings, in New York City, resulted in this group moving from complete antagonism to the project to the utmost cooperation, with an offer to sponsor several New York units as tryout theatres.

    2. The Dramatists' Guild.

      Several meetings with representatives of this group in New York resulted in our mutual decision that royalties must be paid dramatists; and that this group would interest itself in one of our units, a playwrights' theatre.

    3. Federation of Actors.

      Two meetings with Mr. Ralph Whitehead, representing vaudeville, variety, and circuses in a discussion of special problems.

    4. Samuel French and the American Play Company.

      Mr. Clark and Mr. Rumsey, representing respectively the above companies, came to an informal understanding that nay amateur theatre taking over a group of our people, would retain for a period of our experiment, amateur rights; our companies to pay stock prices, sealed low.

    5. Chorus Equity.

      A conference with Miss Bryant, speaking for Chorus Equity, resulted in a plan for musical comedy for chorus groups.

    6. Cinema Interests.

      A meeting with Mr. Will Hays in the hope of securing dark houses, resulted in nothing.

    7. C.C.C. Camps.

      A meeting with Mr. Oxley, director of education for the CCC Camps, and another meeting with Mr. Dunn, educational advisor for the 2nd corps area resulted in ideas for resident theatre instructor, which will be discussed by Mr. Oxley tomorrow.

    8. National Youth Administration.

      Meeting with representatives of this organization resulted in the plan for youths between 16 and 25 financed by the NYA, to work as students and apprentices in the arts. (This also will be discussed further tomorrow).

    9. Theatre Arts Monthly, The New Theatre, the Mayor's Committee in New York.

      This discussion led to a decision to have one project on research and publication to be based on the National Theatre Conference and to be headed by Rosamund Gilder.

  28. V.   An Analysis of the present New York situation.

    This analysis led to the present detailed New York plan which will be explained by Mr. Rice and Mr. Askling.

  29. VI.   The reclassification of theatre people now on relief in New York City.

    As no funds were yet available, this reclassification was finaced by TERA. We now have case histories of 2000 theatre people in New York together with a summary of such value that Mr. Askling will present it to you in the hope that similar studies can be made in each of your regions.

  30. VII.   A field survey of the Southern States, conducted by Mr. John McGee with results which he will give you.

  31. IX.   A field survey of California, conducted by Mr. Howard Miller, who has gone back to California to start a project on the foundation of the survey.

  32. X.   The appointment of the slate of regional directors, in whose hands now rests the fate of the federal theatre project.

  33. This, then, is the situation: several million dollars are allocated and will be in your various state banks within a few days. The procedure under which we work is ready. The plans which you have discussed with me, individually, will be approved. We hope to have several thousand people on the payroll by October 15 and several thousand more on the payroll by November 1. By January 1, I should like to turn in a report to Mr. Hopkins saying that all employable theatre people from relief rolls are at work on projects; more important still, that they have been put to work on theatre projects as intelligent, as vital, and as varied as the imaginations around this table.

  34. The focus of most of the discussion during today and tomorrow will center, rightly, on how the theatre project can help the unemployed. Underneath this, however, let us continue to think how that it can help the theatre.

  35. In a play, My County Right or Left, written by college students and produced on a college stage, there was a scene in which an intellectual, walking alone, philosophizing about art, is confronted by a woman who emerges from a motionless crowd of workers in the background.

  36. The worker woman says, "Is this the appointed hour? Is this the time and place where we should meet?"

  37. The intellectual, removing his hat, remarks cautiously,

  38. "I do not think that we have met before."

  39. To which the worker woman replies,

  40. "I've walked the world for six years. I've noticed you. I knew that someday you would notice me."

  41. Is it too much to think that, for two great forces, mutually in need of each other, the federal theatre project of 1935 may be the appointed time and place?