A COVID-19 vaccine is here, but theaters seek a New Deal

Theatermakers want a modern-day version of the Great Depression’s Federal Theatre Project

For most of 2020, the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage has been thinking about the future in six-week chunks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the entire economy into disarray, threatening airlines, hotels, restaurants, bars, salons, gyms and other businesses that rely on gathering in person. For the performing arts as a whole, and especially theater, the pandemic has been catastrophic, from large organizations like those on Broadway to regional and community stages.

Whole seasons have been canceled. Staff has been furloughed. And theater artists who work as freelancers have been left with little to no financial safety net.

“I’m too focused right now on the next six weeks and the next six weeks and the next six weeks,” Stephanie Ybarra, artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, said in a Zoom interview in early December. “We can only tread water for so long. That’s just a fact. The stakes feel incredibly high and I’ve never felt any pressure like this before ever in my life, ever. … The stakes are the same as the airline industry or the service industry. People’s livelihoods and health insurance and their capacity to pay bills and have homes and feed themselves. That is what is at stake for us.”

For the performing arts as a whole, and especially theater, the pandemic has been catastrophic, from large organizations like those on Broadway to regional and community stages.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Finally, after months of worry, the federal government bestowed a bit of breathing room. On Dec. 27, President Donald Trump signed a $900 billion coronavirus relief aid package into law. The package includes $15 billion for the Save Our Stages Act, introduced in June by Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and John Cornyn of Texas. The money, which will be dispersed through the Small Business Administration, is intended for clubs, independent venues and other performing arts spaces, and includes money for nonprofit spaces such as regional theaters, art house cinemas and museums.

Even with that money, welcome as it is, theatermakers around the nation insist that something more comprehensive is needed: a new Federal Theatre Project (FTP), like the Depression-era government agency that directly employed artists to produce new work.

Though some theaters were able to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from the first round of stimulus, many arts workers and venues are on the edge of insolvency. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has an annual budget of $44 million. It received $4.7 million in relief from the first coronavirus aid package earlier this year. For artists just getting started, some may leave the sector as a whole — without direct assistance, they cannot afford to simply wait out the pandemic.

“The nonprofit theater movement, which was begun to provide a home for artists, now supports tens of thousands of people with middle-class livings,” Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, told me during this year’s annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association. “And almost none of them are artists. It supports administrators, it supports marketing folks. It supports development folks, but it doesn’t support theater artists. It’s insane.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Nataki Garrett is among an array of theater executives who formed a coalition to help performing artists during the pandemic.

Kim Budd

“The Payroll Protection Program was singularly ill-suited to our field. We got a big PPP loan, which was great. It allowed us to continue to employ our staff, but what it did was leave the huge mess of independent contractors, actors, designers, stage managers, running crews, completely out in the cold once the enhanced unemployment ended at the end of July.”

At first, the calls for a New Deal for the arts, or a new Federal Theatre Project, were sparse. But since the summer, an array of theater executives — including Ybarra, Eustis, Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Nataki Garrett and Woolly Mammoth Theatre artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes in Washington — have formed a nationwide coalition. Their goal? Much like the first iteration of the Federal Theatre Project, it’s to get Congress, the White House and the country to see performing artists as workers.

“Never has it been more pressing that our nation do something about the health and safety of the United States’ theater workers, than at this moment,” said playwright Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play). “Our lives have always existed on a precipice of collapse, right? There’s been very little federal aid that has essentially made sure that the American theater worker could afford to pay their rent on time, could count on health care being a right that they would have access to. And that has always made wanting to go into an industry that’s very important to the psyche of a nation very difficult, for those of us who don’t come from significant familial wealth, right? And so, I’ve always wanted this to be a part of the national budget. But it hasn’t been until this moment, where right in our sights, we can see the theater world falling off a cliff. Like they did with the banks and different times in different years during the financial crisis, they need to bail us out.”

The Federal Theatre Project

The Federal Theatre Project, which lasted from the summer of 1935 until summer 1939, was part of a slew of programs created under the New Deal aimed at reigniting the American economy during the Great Depression. New Deal legislation was vast. Among its accomplishments: it created new financial protections and banking regulations, instituted direct economic aid with the creation of the Social Security Administration, created infrastructure jobs that built many of the nation’s highways, canals, levees and dams, and brought the electric grid to rural areas.

Providing jobs for arts workers was also part of the program, and it recognized artists of all stripes. It made it possible for workers to collect slave narratives from Black people. It employed Black writers who would later be recognized as luminaries, including Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, and photographers such as Gordon Parks to document American life.

A look inside an empty Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. On Dec. 27, President Donald Trump signed a $900 billion coronavirus relief aid package into law. The package includes $15 billion for the Save Our Stages Act, intended for clubs, independent venues and other performing arts spaces.

Ken Ross/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The government hired painters and sculptors to create art that still lives in post offices and other public buildings. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board was created to preserve and protect Indigenous art. A Federal Dance Project provided employment for dancers. At its height, the Works Progress Administration, which was the umbrella program that included the Federal Theatre Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Art Project and Federal Writers’ Project, employed roughly 8 million people.

Run by Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theatre Project put actors, stagehands, designers, lighting techs, writers and directors to work telling stories across American stages, essentially creating the modern network of regional theaters. It was instrumental in supporting minority voices. There was a Negro unit and a Yiddish unit, and it wasn’t unusual for works to be performed with integrated casts.

The project only lasted four years before it was killed, thanks in large part to Congressman Martin Dies of Texas, the first chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, who ginned up fear that New Deal projects were indoctrinating the nation with communism and socialism. But it had lasting and significant effects.

For instance, the FTP’s “Living Newspapers” productions that communicated the news of the day weren’t just a way to put theater artists to work. They also fostered ordinary people’s knowledge of and involvement in democracy. The Living Newspaper unit employed both playwrights (it was led by Arthur Arent) and journalists of the Newspaper Guild. The most popular production, One-Third of a Nation, was about America’s housing crisis.

The Federal Theatre Project wasn’t just a jobs program. It provided an opportunity for those who might otherwise be shut out from the performing arts because of financial or racial barriers, a problem that still lingers in the current era.

According to Kate Dossett’s Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal, “In the early days of the Seattle Negro unit, the troupe tested the boundaries and conventions of American theater practice, rewriting the lines of white dramatists and acting out for each other the unequal power relations they experienced with white directors. Later on, they created dramas of their own.”

When the FTP was shuttered in 1939, Dossett wrote, four Living Newspapers — one called Stars and Bars and another called Liberty Deferred — from Black authors were in various states of development.

“The newspapers have much in common: both examine the relationship between Black performance and white spectatorship and both parody the theatrical devices of the FTP’s Living Newspapers,” Dossett wrote. “ … Stars and Bars and Liberty Deferred draw attention to the technologies that sustain cultures of lynching and deny Black bodily integrity; they also unmask performative devices used within white Living Newspapers that consolidate, even as they critique, the racial discourses that enforce Black subordination.”

Sound familiar?

Why revive the Federal Theatre Project?

Theatermakers are adamant that a return to a pre-pandemic status quo isn’t good enough. The pandemic has exposed long-standing problems of equity throughout theater and society as a whole.

Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin has proposed something more permanent with an open letter to President-elect Joe Biden advocating for the creation of a Cabinet secretary of arts and culture. In the letter, signed by close to 10,000 arts and culture workers around the country, Chavkin wrote, “This is both an issue of values, and a Labor issue: arts workers are vital members of the American labor force. Yet as an industry and workers, we have been largely left behind by the federal government. The lack of arts and culture representation at the highest levels of government contributes to this state of affairs. The Department of Labor Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that Arts & Culture accounts for $877.8 billion and 4.5% of U.S. GDP; more than agriculture, transportation or construction. The sector also represents over 5.1 million jobs. Simply put, the recovery of arts and culture is essential to full economic recovery.”

Stephanie Ybarra, artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, on the struggles for workers in her industry: “The stakes feel incredibly high and I’ve never felt any pressure like this before ever in my life, ever.”

Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Ybarra called it the “no imagination without representation” letter.

Though the circumstances for the performing arts have been bleak for most of 2020, there are also glimmers of hope to be found. For instance, playwrights Harris and Katori Hall (TINA: The Tina Turner Musical) have parlayed their success in television to create grants and other commissions for theater artists.

In addition to a discretionary fund of $250,000 from his deal with HBO, Harris has also used his own money from the licensing fees of Slave Play to fund microgrants of $500 for 152 playwrights. There has been $100,000 earmarked specifically to go two $50,000 commissions specifically for Black femme playwrights. Harris also announced the creation of The Golden Collection of plays (named after his late grandfather) that aims to expand the canon of American theater to include works by Lynn Nottage, Adrienne Kennedy, Alice Childress, Suzan-Lori Parks, Hall, Anna Deavere Smith, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Derek Walcott. The scripts will be donated to public libraries and community centers across the country.

Harris publicized his efforts during a recent appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers, in which he called on viewers to contact their elected officials and press them to revive the Federal Theatre Project.

Hall, who is riding the high of the success of her first television show, P-Valley (an adaptation of her play, Pussy Valley), recently signed a new deal with Lionsgate that includes funds specifically to commission new works from Black playwrights, whom Hall will also mentor.

Even with COVID vaccines in distribution, American stages need money before a majority of Americans are inoculated and can afford to spend disposable income on theater, said the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Garrett.

“We also have to have enough resources in place so that when we’re trying to get it back online and get our plays back up, we have to have a pot of money to pull from to do that,” she said. “What a New Deal-style proposal does, is it gives the arts organizations a runway. It does not bail anybody out because the only way to be bailed out is if you’re up and running. But what it does is it allows for a buffer. I’ve got to hire the artist to make the art! I can’t make the art and then hire the artists.”

The potential of what a new New Deal could accomplish for theater can be found in the words of Flanagan’s 1939 speech to the National Theatre Conference, which are still just as relevant and righteous in 2020. “We know now what many doubted four years ago — that great numbers of people, millions of them, who had never gone to the theater, or who had stopped going, want to go to the theater if the plays are good and the admission reasonable. We know that plays have to be good in Denver and Des Moines as well as New York City, because with excellent and inexpensive movies available everywhere no one is satisfied any longer with a second-class roadshow or a mediocre community production.”

In a culture increasingly ruled by streaming outlets, why invest in theater? It’s a significant portion of the American economy — in some years, Broadway sells more tickets than all of New York’s professional sports teams combined. And because it’s more than an art form. It’s a pipeline.

“Our artists and our artistic disciplines are so interconnected,” Ybarra said. “Do you like what Sterling K. Brown is doing on This Is Us? He’s a theater-trained actor. Do you like the writing on Fill-In-The-Blank show? Those are playwrights who write in there! Musicians and actors and writers and directors, or even producers — we’re moving in between these artistic disciplines beautifully. And so I feel like our fates are intertwined. They are interconnected.”

Liner Notes


The New Deal: A Story For Our Times

Soul of a People

American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA by Nick Taylor

The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study by Barry B. Witham

Arena: The history of the Federal Theatre by Hallie Flanagan

A History of African American Theatre by Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch

Voices From the Federal Theatre, edited by Bonnie Nelson Schwartz and the Educational Film Center

Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal by Kate Dossett

Blueprints for a Black Federal Theatre 1935-1939 by Rena Fraden

Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater by Barbara Melosh

Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times by Susan Quinn

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.