recess radio program

Federal Theatre Project
    by John Cech

A steady stream of recent movies, television documentaries, books of photography and history, and even graphic novels has continued to keep alive our interest in the America of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Remarkably, this decade of economic catastrophe also produced a golden age in American theatre, which was largely brought about by The Federal Theatre Project, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration in order to provide work to struggling members of the theatre community during the Depression. The Federal Theatre Project also gave us our first (and to date our only) national children's theatre, through its support of children's theaters in every major city in America.

These wildly popular theatre units offered serious, high quality, inexpensive drama to young audiences and their parents, many of whom had never been to the theatre before. Most of the productions were based on classic material like Cinderella, Aladdin, Hansel and Gretel, Peter Pan, and Treasure Island. But the Federal Theatre for Youth also hoped that its plays would be educational, in the deepest sense. For example, its version of The Emperor's New Clothes emphasized the need to challenge the arrogant self-centeredness of some authority figures. One of the Federal Theatre for Youth's most celebrated clashes with America authority figures occured over a play called The Revolt of the Beavers, about the struggle of hard-working beavers who are being tyrannized by their bosses, other beavers who have bestowed on themselves the privilege of eating ice cream and moving around on roller skates that are forbidden to the long-suffering workers. One well-known drama critic labelled the drama "Mother Goose Marxism" and quite quickly the play was shut down in New York City.

The Federal Theatre for Youth closed for good in June of 1939 with the cutting off of funds for the Federal Theatre Project as a whole. And Yasha Frank, one of the guiding spirits of the FTY, whose production of Pinocchio had inspired Walt Disney to make his cartoon feature of the tale, took the occasion of the last performace of this play in New York City to ask the salient political question. Instead of ending the play with the puppet becoming a boy, Frank closed the performance with the demolition of the sets and the puppet appearing for the last time on stage in a simple pine coffin, which was taken by the crowd -- actors, stage hands, audience --from the theater to Times Square, as they chanted, "Who killed Pinocchio?" And at the rally they held there, on 42nd Street, while the flashbulbs popped, they read off the list of the congressmen who had voted to close the Theatre Project and put the puppet out of work. What a piece of theatre.

Copyright 2007 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."