February 12, 2004
Spotlight on Seattle: Drama prof writes about the local version of Federal Theatre Project
Imagine the scene: All the factories in a city have been closed by sit-down strikes. Union and management are deadlocked. Enter the local university president, who invites representatives of the various factions of the union into his office to talk it over. But when they arrive he’s not there, and while they wait for him, a microphone they don’t know is live broadcasts their scheming over the radio. Thanks to the president’s wily intervention, labor and management settle and the strike is over.
Sound a little far-fetched? Well, believe it or not, it’s an actual scene from a play that won a national prize offered by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), and how it came to be is just one of the fascinating stories that fill The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study by Drama Professor Barry Witham.
The 1937 play, called See How They Run, has some significance for the UW because it was written by George Savage, who was then on the faculty of the University’s English Department. In fact, all the stories in the book should hold some interest on campus because the “case study” Witham is describing is the Seattle branch of the FTP.
This isn’t the first time Witham, a theater historian, has written about the United States’ lone experiment in government sponsorship of the theater. In fact, he is the co-author of Uncle Sam Presents, a memoir of the project that was published 20 years ago, and he’s been writing articles about the FTP ever since. But the current book has been a long time coming.
“I couldn’t work on it full-time so it’s taken me about 15 years,” he says.
And it wasn’t just his presence here that caused Witham to choose Seattle for his case study. It was, he says, one of the units of the project that existed from the time the FTP was created in 1935 until its funding was withdrawn in 1939. Moreover, the Seattle unit had children’s theater and vaudeville in addition to straight plays, and it also had what was then called the Negro company.
So there’s fertile ground here that Witham has expertly plowed. And he has found lots of material to help him tell the tale. “It was a government project and the good thing about government projects for researchers is that everything is in triplicate,” Witham says. “They saved thousands of things. There’s an amazing amount of documentation.”
Take the story of See How They Run, for example. It was one of seven finalists in a playwriting competition sponsored by the FTP, but originally it was the first choice of none of the judges. Witham found letters written from judge to judge documenting how the play was a compromise choice because the judges couldn’t agree to choose any of their top picks.
In addition to a cash prize, the play was supposed to get a production in New York, but that never happened. The fact that it dealt with labor strife at a time when unions were suspected of being allied with communism may have been part of the reason. But Witham thinks the play’s “clunky” script may have been just as much to blame.
“The third act is awfully contrived,” he says. “It’s a pretty naïve assumption that, in the midst of labor turmoil all over the country, wise college professors can sit down and solve the problems.”
See How They Run did get productions in the Bay Area and in Seattle, where it played at an out-of-the-way theater in the Rainier Valley.
That theater has since been torn down, but not all of the physical heritage of the FTP is gone. The project was part of a larger one called the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The aim of both projects was to put unemployed people to work, using government funds to pay them. Regional directors were encouraged to submit proposals for projects to be funded.
The first director of the FTP’s Northwest region was Glenn Hughes, who was then the head of the drama program at the UW. Hughes managed to secure WPA funds to build a stationary Showboat Theater that stayed in operation until the 1980s (it has since been demolished) and the Penthouse Theatre, the first theater in the round in the country, which is still in use. And he also commissioned a set of models of famous historical theaters — the Theatre of Dionysus at the Acropolis, the Roman Theatre at Orange, and so forth.
Designed by UW set designer John Conway and executed by unemployed cabinetmakers, painters and sculptors, the models were displayed on campus for many years, most recently in the lobby of Meany Hall. But today they are in storage.
“When I was director of the Drama School I tried to get them displayed, but one of the problems is they’re very large models and it takes a big space to show them,” Witham says. “So they languish. I would like to see them treated as museum objects. There’s a tremendous amount of WPA art on this campus, including a number of murals. I would like to see the WPA artifacts treated in some kind of museum setting.”
The stories of See How They Run and the theater models are only two of those covered in the book. Other chapters trace the history of the Negro company, the vaudeville company that toured the Civilian Conservation Corps camps and the “living newspaper” productions. Witham thinks the effects of the FTP are still being felt in Seattle nearly 70 years later.
“I think many of the things the project did created a climate in Seattle that’s very theater friendly,” he says. “That climate still exists, and frequently when we know the story of Seattle theater we mark it from the Worlds Fair and the establishment of the Seattle Repertory Theatre. But the roots of this community appreciating and admiring theater go way back, especially when it comes to children’s theater. And the notion that you could create, in the 1930s, a theater by and about black people was extraordinary.”
The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study was published by Cambridge University Press. It is available at University Book Store.