Theatre is an ancient tradition. It is an antique artform, as old as civilization itself. Its seeds were planted in Ancient Greece, with the purpose to exercise freedom of speech and provide social commentary. It then cross-pollinated throughout Europe and Africa, and then into the rest of the world. Through the millions of years and different cultural influences, theatre has evolved into a powerful source of distinction and expression. It is a cultural cornerstone for many countries, and almost every country in the world honors this time-old tradition with a federally funded national theatre.
I then had to ask myself why the United States of America is the only major country in the world that does not have a national theatre.
Mexico, China, India, the UK, France, Australia, Germany… The list of countries with national theatres goes on and on. The U.S. is very conspicuously absent. I mean, I keep hearing that the U.S. is number one. Why are we devoid of something as basic as a national theatre?
I wanted to understand, so I did some digging. The history was surprisingly difficult to find.
The closest the U.S. has ever been to having a national theatre was during the Great Depression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted the Federal Theatre Project, or FTP, in 1934 as part of the New Deal. Its goal was to employ creatives in order to lower unemployment rates, which were the highest they had ever been in U.S. history. And the FTP did just that: in thirty-one states, it employed up to 13,000 previously out of work artists at a time. Actors, directors, composers, set designers, stage managers, costume designers, makeup artists, and many others were once again at work. In order to be employed through the national theatre system of the FTP, you had to be able to prove that your career was something in the theatre, but that you were out of work due to the Depression.
The FTP was run by national director Hallie Flanagan, who turned it into the success that it became.
Her aim was one of passion; to expose live theatre to as many people as possible in order to ease the anguish that the Depression was wreaking on society. She made tickets free or nearly free, and the productions featured powerful social commentary.
There were many different units of the FTP including vaudeville, a children’s unit, a negro unit, living newspapers, and puppetry. The most prolific unit by far was the Negro Unit. They created some of the most controversial and creatively compelling pieces by pushing social boundaries, including having multi-racial casts and touching on difficult subjects such as rape and slavery. They took pre-existing pieces and turned them on their heads in creative adaptations. The most popular production that the Negro Unit ever put on was Voodoo Macbeth — the Shakespeare play set in the Caribbean. This was directed by Orson Wells.
Almost as influential were the living newspapers, simple dramatizations on current events.
The most iconic Living Newspaper was about the STD that was so taboo, people wouldn’t even dare say the name: syphilis. The name of the living newspaper was “Spirochette”. Living Newspapers were the kinds of productions that audiences would scramble to see. They talked about things that were real – the hardships, the grief, the comedy. It was a safe place for audiences to release energy, even making it a common habit to rush the stages on provoking performances. They loved every minute of it. It was escapism at its zenith.
However, it was these controversial pieces that also drew unwanted attention.
Conservative government members were tipped off about these excruciatingly realistic portrayals of the current climate, and they immediately mandated restrictions on content. The FTP fought back valiantly against these regulations.
A group of conservative congress members responded by founding the House Committee on Un-American Activities. They started an investigation that zeroed in solely on the FTP, accusing the productions of propaganda for communism. Hallie Flanagan fired back, saying that they were instead propaganda for democracy, that freedom of speech is a constitutional right. The House on Un-American Activities stuck to their guns and decided to cut all funding for the FTP, and direct it instead towards the impending war against Hitler. On June 30th 1939, they issued pink slips to every FTP unit in the country, effective immediately, which abruptly put thousands of people out of work once more. This brought the FTP’s four successful years to a screeching halt.
There was no more talk of nationally funded arts programs until 1965, when the U.S. congress under Lyndon Johnson founded the National Endowment for the Arts, or the NEA.
This is a government funded program that exists to this day which issues grants to arts projects and institutions. Throughout its history, every republican president has slashed funding for the NEA saying that arts funding should be privatized, while every democrat president has increased NEA funding.
Spurred on by my curiosity as to why conservatives oppose government funding for the arts so passionately, I researched the effect of arts programs on the economy. The results that I found were staggering. According to the U.S. Bureau of Arts and Culture, as of 2017, arts and culture projects accounted for 4.5% of the GDP, and 5.1 million people were employed in arts-based positions. Private funding has been proven to increase and decrease with public funding; the government NEA website displays the statistic that for every dollar of funding from the NEA, nine dollars of private funding are given.
Additionally, many researchers have proven the different positive effects that the arts have from a social standpoint. Listening to classical music, even while in utero, promotes healthy brain development in children; theatre and arts classes are utilized in hospitals to help their patients heal; and the arts help to bind communities together, including eliminating social and racial barriers.
That was when I realized that it’s not arts funding the conservatives in government want to eliminate; it’s free thinking.
Since the arts encompass freedom of speech and freedom of expression, there are no boundaries or taboo subjects. Looking back at the FTP, the productions experienced no backlash until they started exploring subject matters that conservatives in government found inappropriate, such as STDs, rape, and interracial relationships.
The pattern continued from there; in 1987, Andre Serrano lost NEA funding after conservative senators cried blasphemy because of his sculpture Piss Christ. In 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment was funded by the NEA, but the government cancelled his exhibition due to the sexual nature of his piece. Probably the most famous people to have had funding pulled was a group who became known as the NEA four. They had created art pieces that dealt with LGBTQ rights and women’s rights issues. David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, a silent film about the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s, was made an example of by John Boehner and Eric Cantor as an argument to pull funding from the NEA. They cancelled his funding and his film was never finished. The Trump administration tried to remove the NEA altogether.
If you give artists freedom of expression, soon EVERY American will want it!
This is a very popular saying used by protestors against federal funding for the arts.
Is that the kind of America you want to live in? One where you can’t be free to express yourself? That sounds less like democracy and more like totalitarianism to me. The arts are the most influential vehicle for change, but artistic voices are being stifled by people who view change as a threat. As Hallie Flanagan said:
The theatre, when it is potent enough to deserve its ancestry, is always dangerous; that is why it is so instinctively feared by people who do not want change, but only preservation of the status quo.
The conservative ideal that government shouldn’t interfere with the free market is a cheap excuse for not funding the arts.
The arts represent capitalism because they are competition based; artists have to prove that they are the most talented person for the job through audition-based platforms. Because of the heavy privatization, many different facets of the arts have become inaccessible to most people. Live theatre, live concert, and even movie tickets have become immorally priced when they used to be affordable, and it’s only getting worse. More and more public institutions are turning towards private funding. Imagine having to pay to see a national park or go to a library. What’s more is all of the profits are going to wealthy private corporations.
Right now, we are in the midst of a pandemic. Unemployment rates are the highest they’ve been since the Great Depression and our country’s morale is at an all-time low. Wouldn’t right now be a great time to implement something that has been proven to raise spirits? In a country that has such apparent divides, wouldn’t right now be a great time to institute something that has been proven to bring people together and provide a sense of community? With a pandemic that is making people ill, wouldn’t right now be a great time to institute something that has been proven to promote healing?
Maybe… a national theatre?
Of course, we would have to adapt to the current events and implement it in a safe way, such as online, for the time being. But, the arts provide so many jobs and create so much revenue, in every state in the U.S. Isn’t giving people jobs and hope better than handing them unemployment checks?
Out of the FTP emerged some of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, Orson Welles, John Houseman, and so many others workshopped productions and got their starts through the FTP. How many more of those artistic revolutionaries are out there, unable to bring their art to life because of lack of public funding? Only a minuscule percentage of people are able to make a living off of a career in the arts now.
The U.S. prides itself in being the number one in most things; technology, economy, medicine…. The list goes on and on. But, in my opinion, the biggest thing on which we’re embarrassingly lagging is cultural pride. Yes, we are a relatively new country, which means that we are still developing our own culture. We already have some distinctly American cultural buds that have bloomed such as jazz, filmmaking, baseball, and apple pie. But, how are we supposed to further develop our culture if our government is still acting the way it did in the ‘30s when it created censorship? This will point us the way towards a real-life dystopian future of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or George Orwell’s 1984. We need to find a way to reconnect to the creative expression that our Greek ancestors valued so highly.
We need to bring the United States National Theatre to life.
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am in actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.