UW News

April 27, 2006

Restoration of theater models sparks interest in Depression-era WPA and the arts

Seventy years ago during the Depression, some unemployed craftsmen made a set of teaching tools for a UW professor. Doesn’t sound like much of an event, but the teaching tools in question are beautifully detailed scale models of important theaters in history, and the craftsmen were employed by the Federal Theatre Project — a project for which the late UW drama professor Glenn Hughes served as regional director.

Beginning Saturday, April 29, those models will go on exhibit in Suzzallo Library, and the following weekend a UW-hosted symposium will look at the Federal Theatre Project’s parent organization, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), in relation to the arts. “WPA: Public Arts in a Time of Crisis” will be held May 5 and 6 on campus.

The impetus for the symposium came from the 2003 publication of a book on the Federal Theatre Project by UW Drama Professor Barry Witham. The book contains a chapter on the theater models.

“A bunch of my Ph.D. students at the time saw my book and were fascinated with my enthusiasm for these models,” Witham said. “They wanted to know what had become of them, so we tracked them down. They were in storage in an old Sears building that the UW uses for storage, and we went to look at them. They all said, ‘These should be displayed,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I’ve been saying that for years.'”

The students — Elizabeth Bonjean, Sydney Cheek O’Donnell and Kara Reilly (Bonjean and O’Donnell have since graduated) — were impressed with the models and wanted to have them restored. But they also thought the whole subject of federal funding of the arts through the WPA was timely and should be explored in a symposium.

Meanwhile, Amy Boyce, then an MFA student in directing, had her own interest in the WPA. Boyce did her undergraduate work at Vassar, where Hallie Flanagan, the director of the Federal Theatre Project, taught. Boyce had picked up Flanagan’s biography as an undergraduate, but it had sat unread until she was required to direct a show using material she’d adapted from an existing source. So she wrote and directed a play about Flanagan’s life.

Boyce and the other three are friends, so they soon joined forces on the symposium. They acquired funding for it from the Simpson Center for the Humanities, and a staged reading of Boyce’s play will be part of the program. The four jokingly call themselves “Hallie’s girls.”

Witham will give the keynote at the symposium, set for 7 p.m. Friday, May 5, in 110 Kane. He says he’ll talk about the models as one example of the WPA locally.

On Saturday, May 6, there will be three panels in 226 Communication. “Evaluating the WPA” will be at 10:30 a.m., “Interrogating the WPA” at 1:30 p.m. and “Celebrating the WPA” at 4 p.m. Details of the presentations can be found at http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/projects_wpa0506.htm  

According to Witham, the scholars on the panels will look at both the strengths and weaknesses of the WPA. “We’re not looking at it through rose-colored glasses,” he said. “There was racism in the WPA, even though the Federal Theatre Project included what were then called Negro units. Some people claimed that WPA stood for ‘white people apply.’ Still, it was in many ways an extraordinary program.”

The staged reading of the play, Relevant, Adult and Uncensored, will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6, in the Playhouse Theatre (the home of one of the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro units), with Drama Professor Robyn Hunt taking the role of Flanagan.

Boyce said that although the play deals mainly with the years that Flanagan led the Federal Theatre Project, it is framed by a much later scene that pictures Flanagan as an educator at Smith, where she taught after Congress killed the project.

“She’s haunted by the spirits of actors still waiting for a job,” Boyce said. “There are eight actors, so as the play unfolds they take roles in the story of her life, with each actor playing a number of characters.”

An educator herself (she now teaches at Holy Names Academy) Boyce, draws inspiration from Flanagan’s words: “Theater need not be just the icing on the cake; it can be the yeast that makes the bread rise.”

“That appeals to me so much,” Boyce said. “You can get bogged down in bureaucracy just like she did, but she held on to her beliefs. She had a wonderful combination of idealism and pragmatism. She didn’t have it all figured out, but her core intentions were admirable.”

While “Hallie’s girls” were planning the symposium, Witham raised funds to finance restoring the models, which he says were in remarkably good shape. TPN, an exhibit design company, agreed to supervise the work — mostly cleaning and gluing — using student labor.

Models in the exhibit include the Beijing Teahouse, the Theatre of Dionysus, the South Slope of the Acropolis, the Roman Theatre at Orange, the Noh Theatre, the Fortune Theatre, the Kabuki Theatre, the Teatro Olimpico, the Teatro Farnese, and Drury Lane. They will be on display in 102 Suzzallo through June. After that, they will be on permanent loan to A Contemporary Theatre and will be displayed in that company’s building at 700 Union Street.

The exhibit, as well as the symposium and the staged reading of the play, are free and open to the public. No tickets are required.