The Federal Theatre Project was a New Deal program to fund theatre and other live artistic performances in the United States during the Great Depression. It was one of five Federal Project Number One projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and opened its first season in October 1935. The Federal Theatre Project ended when its funding was canceled after Congress became alarmed at some of the more left-wing productions being put on by the FTP.
The Federal Theatre Project was created to employ out-of-work artisans in the theatre industry, as well as to produce high-quality live theatre for all Americans to enjoy. The FTP was one of the first government programs to provide economic relief for artists during the Great Depression. It was also one of the first to recognize and support the talents of African American and other minority performers and directors.
The FTP’s first season of operations included productions in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. One of the most notable early productions was the all-black Macbeth, directed by Orson Welles and starring an African American cast. This production toured the country and was seen by more than 100,000 people. Other successful FTP productions included Voodoo Macbeth, which starred Hattie McDaniel (the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award), and It Can’t Happen Here, a play about the rise of fascism in America.
The FTP was not without its detractors, however. Some members of Congress were concerned about the left-wing leanings of some of the FTP’s productions, and in 1939, after a particularly controversial production of The Cradle Will Rock, the FTP’s funding was cut off by Congress. This effectively ended the Federal Theatre Project, although some of its productions continued to tour the country for several years after its demise.