Federal Theatre Project

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The Federal Theatre Project was a New Deal program, organized under the Works Progress Administration, which organized and funded the production of stage plays during the years of the Great Depression.

Producing plays provided employment to individuals, who earned a standard wage of $75 per month, either as actors or as stagehands, electricians, ushers or other crew members. It also helped restore revenues to otherwise vacant playhouses, and to entertain the public. The proceeds from tickets sold were directed to other relief and educational programs. Mrs E. T. Bozenhard, membership chair for the Birmingham Little Theatre, helped to organize the work.

Due to prevailing custom and Birmingham's segregation ordinances, local companies were divided by race. The first to be organized was a "Colored Unit" operating under the name of the Negro Repertory Theatre. Clyde Limbaugh assembled his cast from WPA worker rolls in March, and led rehearsals at the Colored YWCA for their debut performance of "Home in Glory", which was presented on alternate nights to white and Black audiences at Municipal Auditorium in April.

That same month, the WPA leased the Jefferson Theatre and hired Verner Haldene from Montgomery's Little Theatre to take over production of the melodrama "After Dark", work that had begun under D.C.-based project organizer Ivan Paul. Birmingham's White unit was enrolled in the WPA as "Project No. 1822". Others involved in managing the company included John McGee, Burt McKee Jr, Elizabeth May, Drennen Smoot, Henry Holtan, and J. L. Lentz.

The White unit ultimately split into two companies which would alternate weeks at the Jefferson or touring around the state. The resident troupe planned to give six performances a week with tickets ranging from 20 to 40 cents. Birmingham Post critic Ray Glenn found their first production to be a "tintype," which, "wallows in sloughs of 19th Century dullness," and wished to see the troupe tackle, "a modern vehicle requiring restraint and realism." The cast seemed to find its stride in such a vehicle, "Chalk Dust", which addressed itself to, "educational problems in these trying times," with, "biting directness," and was held over for a second week.

In July the Black company staged a large production of "Swamp Mud" with more than 200 offstage voices forming a chorus for work songs and spirituals. The play, which had premiered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was written by music folklorist Harold Courlander, with its songs arranged by Wallace Pritchett. A section of seats at Industrial High School auditorium was reserved for white playgoers.

Birmingham was one of 21 cities that hosted simultaneous productions of Sinclair Lewis' adaptation of his novel, "It Can't Happen Here" on October 27, 1936. Artistic directors discussed tailoring the production to the local context by playing up the pageantry of Berzelius Windrip's presidential campaign with a brass band and patriotic bunting.

A meeting of directors of the Federal Theatre Project was also held in Birmingham in October 1936. Birmingham Age-Herald editor John Temple Graves addressed the group and pleaded for dramatists to look at contemporary struggles with poverty, race and industrialization rather than to continually romanticize the South in stories. In response, Frances Nimmo Greene, head of the project's Southern division, suggested staging Thomas Hall-Rogers' story "Altars of Steel".

Before that production was staged, however, the White unit in Birmingham had been merged into Atlanta's, which was sponsored by the Little Theatre Guild there, under the direction of Albert Lovejoy. When it opened, "Altars of Steel" proved itself to be a standout production, earning wide acclaim alongside some controversy.

The group planned a returned to Birmingham for a holiday season play based on Robert Nathan's novel One More Spring. The author declined to license his work, however, and the theater did not reopen. Instead the company made plans to revive "It Can't Happen Here" and rehearse "Altars of Steel" for a possible January run. Inviting the Tampa, Florida company to perform in Birmingham was also discussed.


White unit

Colored unit


  • "Cast Chosen in Negro Project" (March 31, 1936) Birmingham Post
  • Glenn, Ray (April 24, 1936) "'Project 1822' Will Bring Stage Plays to Birmingham; Producer is Uncle Sam." Birmingham Post
  • Glenn, Ray (May 13, 1936) "Dastardly Deeds Unfolds [sic] in Debut of Project 1822." Birmingham Post
  • "Federal Group to Give More Plays" (June 24, 1936) The Birmingham News
  • Flanagan, Hallie (1940) Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. Duell, Sloan & Pearce
  • Poole, John Russell (1995) The Federal Theatre Project in Georgia and Alabama: An Historical Analysis of Government Theatre in the Deep South.. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Georgia
  • Poole, John R. (2001) "Making a Tree from Thirst: Acquiescence and Defiance in the Federal Theatre Project in Birmingham, Alabama". Theatre History Studies No. 21, pp. 27–42
  • Wright, A. J. (September 9, 2020) "The Federal Theatre Project in Alabama" Alabama Yesterdays

External links