After the Curtain Calls

Fulfilling the American dream of standing under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.

Then

Federal Theatre Project, 1935–39

New York City

Then

Federal Theatre Project, 1935–39

New York City

It was mid-February 1936 and Hollywood had just shut down production of the movie version of Sinclair Lewis’s best-selling book It Can’t Happen Here, which imagines a world in which a totalitarian political figure defeats Franklin Roosevelt and becomes president of the United States. MGM claimed it was because of production costs, but Lewis suspected it was because Germany and Italy had threatened to boycott it.

There was one outlet willing to take on the adaptation: the Federal Theatre Project. Its director, Hallie Flanagan, saw a chance to snag a major work by a famous writer and turn it into a lynchpin production for the fledgling program. The FTP hired Lewis and produced the novel as a play, with an audaciously orchestrated, simultaneous debut at regional theaters across the country. It Can’t Happen Here opened on October 27, 1936, in 21 theaters in 18 cities.

The FTP arrived at a time when many were worried about the fate of theater during the Great Depression. The theater business had been hit hard by the motion-picture industry and popular entertainments such as vaudeville were now considered old-fashioned, throwing its artists out of work. The FTP aimed to create a phalanx of regional theaters that would employ not just actors, but also directors, designers, ushers, stagehands, and every other form of worker needed to run a production.

“The people on our roles should be regarded not as relief cases,” wrote Flanagan, “but as professional workers competent to carry out an ambitious nationwide program.” Give the people quality plays at a price they could afford, she believed, and audiences would flock to the theater.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

Flanagan and her cohorts organized major programs in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where talent was concentrated, as well as in Portland; Seattle; Denver; Detroit; San Francisco; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Cincinnati; Salem, Massachusetts; Springfield, Illinois; and others. The scope of productions produced by the FTP was dizzying: classics such as Macbeth, Doctor Faustus, and Coriolanus were staged alongside circuses, musical comedies, light opera, and plays for children. There were marionette productions and foreign-language dramas. Original plays geared to specific regions recounted the history of Arkansas or of the settling of Illinois’ plains.

“The caliber of dramatic talent on the project (as on Broadway) ranges from bad to excellent,” Flanagan wrote, adding that many were understandably “ill, worn out, discouraged.” In some places, directors were forced to fill out casts with a few amateurs—something typically forbidden by the FTP—in order to keep the professionals in work. A certain level of scrappiness was required to achieve the FTP’s mission of bringing theater to the masses. Staff renovated old movie costumes, or designed ones that could do double duty by being inexpensively altered with an added hat or cuffs. Across the nation, troupes performed in hospitals, parks, convents, schools, and prisons.

In spite—or because—of smash hits like It Can’t Happen Here, both the FTP and Flanagan were the targets of anti-communists who were upset about productions emphasizing the plight of the common man. In December 1938, after the House Un-American Activities Committee was convened by the House of Representatives to ferret out so-called “subversives” in both civilian and government life, Flanagan was called before the committee to defend the FTP from charges of both employing communists and advancing communist ideology.

During her testimony, the committee grilled Flanagan on everything from the political subtext of a children’s play about beavers to her reason for studying Russian theater as part of a Guggenheim fellowship 12 years prior. Flanagan declared her loyalty to American democracy and touted the FTP’s less-controversial plays, but it did little good. Her questioning ended abruptly when the committee adjourned for lunch; her requests to return and testify further were rebuffed. HUAC devoted just two sentences to the FTP in a January 1939 report, stating simply, “We are convinced that a rather large number of the employees on the Federal Theatre Project are either members of the Communist Party or are sympathetic with the Communist Party.” The Federal Theatre Project was officially ended by an act of Congress on June 30, 1939.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

Then

Federal Theatre Project, 1935–39

New York City

Now

Tim Davis, 2017

Texas, Maine, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and New York

Now

Tim Davis, 2017

Texas, Maine, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and New York

We’re all waiting for the curtain call. The actors onstage, the audience, and the whispering crew form a collective clench, with the strain of focus and persistence that has enabled the human species to act its way out of treetops and caves. We are only really human under pressure. And we only know animal ecstasy at that pressure’s release.

In high school, I performed in the play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard. I played the commandant of a Soviet mental hospital that was illegally holding political prisoners. I wore a false nose, I said my lines, I hit my marks. And I couldn’t help but be moved by the lead actor, a thin-boned, sparrow-eyed senior whose whole body rattled with language and sentiment. I was waiting for the curtain call; he was alive onstage.

My work, Curtain Calls, is part of a trilogy about amateur artists. For the past several years, I have visited community theaters in Texas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, and Maine—from performances held in town halls to semiprofessional regional theaters. At the end of every show, I took my place in the back of the theater, trying to assume a neutral space, and filmed the curtain call.

The United States devotes relatively little funding to the arts—about .02 percent of our GDP, as opposed to Germany’s .36 percent—and yet all over the country people are still sawing and painting and lighting and memorizing and blocking and singing and dancing their way toward curtain call after curtain call. I don’t mean this as an up-by-their-bootstraps rant, but rather a paean to how necessary art is to any community. The true American dream is turning up the amp alongside your basement band and dressing up as the Cat in the Hat for Seussical. There is dedication, grit, and certainty in these performers that we’re having trouble finding in our churches and schools, not to mention our government officials.

In my travels, I met Perry Martin, the founder and former artistic director of the Bayou Playhouse in Lockport, Louisiana. Martin got his start in theater working for Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny. (Blanc loved to play a game during lunch with Martin, who is legally blind: he would slowly pull the table back every time Martin picked up his glass, until finally it would crash to the floor.) After a long career in drama, Martin returned to the bayou after Hurricane Katrina, salvaged seats from the Saenger Theater in New Orleans, and opened a playhouse in tiny Lockport. “There’s not even a movie theater in this parish,” Martin told me. Almost none of the visitors to his 98-seat theater, he said, have ever seen a play before.

In 2014, I went to the Bayou Playhouse to see a staging of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I was dreading it; I’d sat through some extremely tedious productions of Les Misérables and Jesus Christ Superstar during my travels, and my expectations were low. But the show was surprising and brilliant. Martin had inserted references to the recent Ebola outbreak and other contemporary issues, and the cast—all amateurs—was vivid and delirious. The audience was in hysterics from the opening curtain.

We were far from the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, in which the US government paid community theaters to put on shows all across the country—but we were close in spirit. A March of Time newsreel from 1936 describes the Federal Theatre Project in typical, pinched, transatlantic voiceover:

“Within the few glittering blocks of Broadway’s theatrical district has centered in recent years all that mattered in the American theater. But today, from one end of the land to another, something is astir in the nation’s playhouses, for the US government is bringing the living stage back to hundreds of communities where no flesh-and-blood actor has appeared for a full generation.”

I, too, am far from any WPA-type blessing, driving across the country without a Guggenheim or MacArthur grant, spending my free time and vacation hours searching for American theater artists who make things outside the gravitational pull of Broadway’s glitter. I once sarcastically joked to my students—all graduating photography majors—that the government was reviving the WPA and they would all get jobs going out and documenting the American scene. It may have been the cruelest joke I’ve ever made. Most artists are out there on their own, like amateur scientists in a backyard NASA, building their own rockets, burning their own fuel, saving themselves on splashdown. The American dream isn’t to get rich like Donald Trump, but to stand under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.

Photographer, poet, and musician Tim Davis was born to American parents in Malawi in 1969. He received his B.A. from Bard College, where he now teaches, and his M.F.A. from Yale University. His work is in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Guggenheim Museum, and The Walker Art Center, among many others. He lives in Tivoli, New York and is represented by Van Doren Waxter, New York.

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