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Federal Theatre Revisited

June 14, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

Last weekend's panel discussion of the Federal Theatre Project at Actors Alley quickly became a town meeting. Practically everybody in the audience had some memory of a Federal Theatre show, either something they had seen or had been in.

It was 50 years ago, but not to these people. Gene Stone, for instance, recalled the Federal Theatre's vaudeville unit at the Hollywood Playhouse: 175 jugglers, acrobats and baggy-pants comics doing a mammoth history of vaudeville called "Two-a-Day."

It was a reminder that not every Federal Theatre show was an attempt to change the minds and hearts of men. The point was further clinched that evening, with Actors Alley's production of a "lost" 1936 Federal Theatre play by Mary Chase, entitled "Me Third."

Maybe Mrs. Chase had a message in mind here--something about about how social climbers should at least pay their bills. But at heart this is ding-a-ling suburban comedy, the kind of show they do today in dinner theaters. A snooty family hires a new maid, who used to be the cashier at the local house of ill repute . . . you take it from there.

Federal Theatre chief Hallie Flanagan mentions "Me Third" in her book, "Arena." She doesn't mention what she thought of it. Not much, probably, except as a pledge of what its author might go on to write. (Mrs. Chase went on to write "Harvey.")

Flanagan's heart was with the kind of play that wanted to make a difference, and that was the kind of play most fondly remembered at the Actor's Alley discussion.

It might be a play about regional history, as with "The Sun Rises in the West," concerning the migration of Nebraskans to California. Director Virgina Farmer recalled, on tape, that her Southwest Experimental Unit had a whole year to put it together and that she could use as many actors as she wanted--there was always somebody sitting around "the bullpen."

Or it might be a play about a particular social problem, as explored in one of the Federal Theatre's Living Newspapers.

Nancy Ebsen, chairman of the panel, dug out an old issue of Theatre Arts Magazine in which writer Arthur Arents claimed that the idea for the form had just sort of growed. A more likely source was Flanagan. She had had seen similar teaching-pieces in Europe, and she wanted an American equivalent.

She didn't want agitprop. But she did want a point of view--backed by the facts, of course. "With Hallie," said Ebsen, a student of Flanagan's at Vassar, "you had to do your homework."

Exciting as it was to hear about the Federal Theatre from those who had actually lived through it, the afternoon's most profitable topic was the future. What lessons can we take from the Federal Theatre Project? Is it a structure we should try to rebuild?

Lorraine Brown, director of George Mason University's research project of the Federal Theatre, seemed to think that we should. Many in the audience agreed with her. When one panelist (me) suggested that there were dangers in that direction, he was charged with negative thinking.

Certainly it's exciting to think of a string of government-supported theaters from Los Angeles to Boston, offering quality work at prices that everybody can afford. Certainly it's exciting to imagine a significant new American play opening all over the nation on the same night, as when the Federal Theatre did "It Can't Happen Here" in '36.

But who is going to run the system? If the federal government, then get set for the things that Flanagan tries to be good-humored about in "Arena"--the paperwork, the all-day staff meetings, the phone call from the senator whose niece wants to go on the stage, the telegram from the mayor who doesn't want filthy plays being done in his town.

Worse than that. Hubert Morehead reminded the panel that the Federal Theatre was defunded in 1939, largely thanks to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had found it full of unspecified "radicals." (Morehead and his wife Martha use HUAC's hearings as the spine of their play about the Federal Theatre, "Cast of Thousands.")

It's not hard to imagine that charge coming up again, were the Federal Theatre to be revived. In fact it's hard to imagine it not coming up. Picture Jesse Helms' reaction to a Living Newspaper called "Tobacco."

Picture another scenario. A vastly popular President, another F.D.R., declares a state of emergency and commissions a piece called "Oil" to open July 4 in 50 U.S.theaters, with enlistment desks in the lobby of each. It could happen here.

Another problem with a centralized national theater system is stagnation: what happens when too many relatives and drones get on the payroll. It wasn't heartening to learn from Virginia Farmer that Federal Theatre actors actually punched in, like factory workers, and sat around waiting bor something to do. In the long run, a national theater can't be a welfare scheme.

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