A New Federal Theatre Project

While millions of Americans are suffering in the COVID-19 economy, those hardest hit are events industry workers. 77% of events workers have lost 100% of their incomes. Many of them were already contract workers living paycheck to paycheck or supported their artistic aspirations with day jobs in other hard-hit industries, like food service. Recent graduates, including friends of mine, managed to secure arts and events industry jobs during their last spring semester, only to have those offers rescinded when the job ceased to exist.


As the pandemic runs its course, various industries will slowly recover and some have already found ways to adapt. The theatre industry is facing an uphill battle. Zoom productions are taking place but are far less enjoyable than in-person productions. Some outdoor performances can be arranged but you are at the mercy of the clouds. A few theaters in cities less affected by the virus are attempting to reopen carefully but they are still taking an enormous financial risk. Adhering to social distancing rules in audience seating arrangements ultimately means reducing the number of audience members. Thus, the only way to turn a real profit from these productions is with exorbitant ticket prices. Creating the experience of a live theatrical production just cannot be done virtually. I know I sound pessimistic but the first step in creating a solution is to be honest about the extent of the problem.


Before the pandemic, theaters, especially local ones, were already heavily reliant on generous donors to stay up and running. Now, the theaters that aren’t permanently closing are having to lay off staff members and cancel shows. Even if this public health crisis ends soon, theatre will continue to suffer. The main demographic of theatre-goers is older, wealthy white people. Because of their age and vulnerability to the virus, they won’t feel comfortable attending events for a while. Unfortunately, the younger, less wealthy people of color who would be making up new audiences are the very people who have been hardest hit by the economic crisis, so they won’t be spending money on those tickets. Eventually the economy will recover and most industries will be alright, but by that time theaters all over the country will have been forced to close indefinitely. We’ll need a new Federal Theatre Project.


When the Great Depression hit, the theatre industry had already been suffering. The emergence of movies with sound which could be seen at cheaper prices than plays and musicals were becoming more popular and slowly taking away theatrical audiences. Then, in the 1930s things got more dire and as with many industries, the government stepped in to help. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration was formed and $27 million was allocated for Federal Project Number One, made up of five divisions including the Federal Theatre Project. Led by Vassar professor Hallie Flanagan, its purpose was to employ arts and theatre workers. Local and regional theaters were created, including our very own Raleigh Little Theatre. They produced plays which were mostly free to members of the public, many of whom could not afford to see theatre otherwise. In its four years, the Federal Theatre Project helped start the careers of young artists including Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, and Elia Kazan.


Though the Federal Theatre Project was arguably a success, the House Un-American Activities Committee saw to its demise. They believed a number of the shows to be communist propaganda and claimed that the program’s work toward racial equality was communist in nature. In June of 1939, HUAC cut off funding. Luckily, the economic boom created by World War II was just around the corner and things like the USO provided new employment for performers and events workers.


I’m sure that a decade from now the theatre industry will be up and running well so long as it is given help to weather this crisis. Theaters need financial support as they continue adapting to virtual performances and severely reduced audience numbers. A new Federal Theatre Project would not only benefit this industry and all those it employs, but it will contribute to the nation’s spiritual resilience. The survival of our cultural institutions is of the utmost importance. As President John F. Kennedy said:


"As a great democratic society, we have a special responsibility to the arts. For art is the great democrat, calling forth creative genius from every sector of society, disregarding race or religion or wealth or color. What freedom alone can bring is the liberation of the human mind and a spirit which finds its greatest flowering in the free society. I see of little more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist."


For now, there are a few things you can do. There’s the classic donation route. You can donate the cost of your refunded ticket for a cancelled show. You can also become a member of your local theater or buy season tickets in advance. One thing I know I’ll be doing is voting for politicians who support funding for the arts and who understand that we have to end this pandemic before we can safely reopen things like theaters.