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The Pioneer Was a Lady : HALLIE FLANAGAN A Life in the Theater by Joanne Bentley (Alfred A. Knopf: $24.95; 428 pp., illustrated, 0-394-57041-3)

October 09, 1988|Vincent Curcio | Curcio is an Off-Broadway producer and manager and for 10 years has been the manager of Lucille Lortel's White Barn Theatre in Westport, Conn. and

Millions of dollars and millions of words have been spent on three issues in American theater in the last quarter of a century: the establishment of a federally funded national theater, decentralization through the propagation of the regional theater movement, and latterly, the encouragement of women as artistic and business administrators. The life of Hallie Flanagan, the blazing theatrical comet of the 1930s, encompasses all these agendas, and illustrates them in such high relief as to be emblematic of their most important features. It bids fair to say that the contemplation of no other single career in the profession has as much to tell us about these subjects. What is most amazing is that hers was the brave pioneer life in these areas, for at that time, they were all terra incognita, inhabited by dragons.

Hallie Flanagan, born in South Dakota in 1889, was the product of a solid Midwestern upbringing, mostly in Iowa. Her father taught her to think of herself as a special woman, capable of succeeding at whatever she set her mind to accomplish, and her mother instilled in her the primary ideal of service to others; this combination of self-worth and self-sacrifice, even in adversity, was to make her particularly apt for her position at the head of the Federal Theatre. Furthermore, a character-building education at Grinnell College, in her day as fine as any west of the Mississippi, gave her the fortitude to carry out her policies despite the brutal attacks of politicians and others who were against everything she did and fought for.

The programs and ideals of Hallie Flanagan were the outgrowth of the vast Little Theatre movement that took hold in America 75 years ago. Lady Gregory, who with William Butler Yeats was instrumental in founding the Abbey Theatre, said during her American tour in 1911: "Start your own theaters. Train amateurs as we have done. Make your theaters in your own image." America, and eventually Flanagan, followed suit.

Deeply influenced by George Pierce Baker and many of the great European theatrical minds of the 1920s, she began the Vassar Experimental Theatre. On tiny budgets, with amateur and student actors, designers and crews, she created productions that were widely praised and respected, considered the equal of the professional theater at its finest. When the Depression struck, and the salons of Washington decided that artists were workers deserving of relief just like other citizens, she became the natural choice to head the Federal Theatre project of the WPA, and in 1935 assumed its leadership.

Flanagan's aim with the Federal Theatre was to organize theatrical enterprises "so excellent in nature, so low in cost, and so vital to the communities involved that they would be able to continue indefinitely." To this end, she began major projects in such cities as New York, Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles, and many others in smaller communities, employing thousands of people and returning to them a sense of the dignity of work, while reaching audiences of tens of millions of people, many of whom had never seen a live stage performance before. Obviously, the impact of the Federal Theatre was vast. It was also unique. Only economic disaster created an atmosphere in which the conservative, entrepreneurial American public was willing to support federally funded theater on a national scale. After a combination of circumstances that ruined it beyond all repair, nothing like it was ever really tried again. The current National Endowment for the Arts Theatre Program is but a pale shadow of the Federal Theatre.

Political naivete destroyed the Federal Theatre. Flanagan never understood that many who funded it considered it a relief project only, and were indifferent, or hostile, to her artistic and social goals. Then too, it was clearly infiltrated by strong Communist influences, which used it as a propaganda tool. She wasn't a good enough administrator to identify those elements and root them out until it was too late. Also, a part of her sympathized with some of the Communists' more solid notions; she wasn't sufficiently able to sort out her private feelings from the political realities of her position.

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