Historic theatrical documents from the nation's first federal-aid-to-the-arts program in the 1930s - almost lost for a quarter of a century - were recovered three years ago this month by George Mason University professors Lorraine Brown and John O'Connor and then-reference librarian John Cole of the Library of Congress.
Brown began the search, she said, "because of a course I taught in American drama. Materials from the 1930s were very scant. When I heard about some unedited play scripts at the Library of Congress, I began slogging around there one day asking questions." She found the person with a right answer in Cole's office, she recalls.
Brown, Cole and O'Connor then journied to an abandoned airport hangar in Maryland where they found some 900 cubic feet of unique theatrical materials from the Federal Theatre Project (FTP).
The Federal Theatre Project was a depression-era program funded by Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) to give jobs to unemployed writers and artists.
The project produced a series of theatrical firsts in America: premiere performances of many of Eugene O'Neil's works; the first U.S. production of T.S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral:" a Black voodoo version of Shakespeare's "Macbeth;" scripts by poet Langston Hughes; a '30s swing-time production of "The Mikado;" and creation of a new dramatic form, The living Newspaper.
After the rediscovery of the FTP original materials by Brown and O'Connor in 1974, a research center for the Federal Theatre project was set up in the George Mason Library in Fairfax. The FTP materials have been put on permanent loan there by the Library of Congress, according to Michael Sundell, administrative director of th center and head of the university's English department where the two professors teach.
In July of 1976, a two-year $159,568 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) made possible the establishment of a basic archive for the collection.
Recently, a New Federal Theatre was founded in the Washington area by director Mark Mason, who says his "interest was stimulated" by contact with the center's research materials and staff.
"I finally got to the point in 1977 where I wanted to stage productions based on federal theatre concepts," Mason said. "So it seemed a natural to incorporate as 'New Federal Theatre.'"
His company will stage a series of free productions based on original FTP scripts during the month of October. They will be sponsored by the Library of Congress in its Coolidge Auditorium. A program on the Living Newspapers is scheduled for oct. 4; black theatre is the theme of the Oct. 11 production. The last two shows on Oct. 18 and Oct. 25 deal with women in the 1930s and 1930s radio.
Two summers ago, for the first time since 1940, theatrical productions of original Living Newspaper scenes were made possible by $7,000 grant from the Virginia Endowment for the Humanities to GMU's department of fine and performing arts. A free series was staged throughout northern Virginia using student actors under the director of drama professor Jack Jenkins. A second grant in 1977 from the Virginia Foundation for the Huminities resulted in another summer of Living Newspaper revivals for area audiences.
Additionally, two public radio programs based on FTP radio scripts are in the works, and a German TV stations has developed a series of documentatries covering federal arts programs. The series will also be shown by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and may possibly be aired on public television in the U.S.
While talking about recent federal theatre projects, Brown said that the staff had finished what she called " the phenomenal task of unpacking, analyzing and cataloging the materials in just three years."
The primary task remaining is to complete a comprehensive register for the entire collection. According to assistant curator Louanne Wheeler, it contains; 25,000 production photographs; 7,000 play scripts; 5,000 folders of original The Living Newspaper clippings; 2,500 radio scripts; 1,645 costume design sketches; 750 production notebooks; 350 set design sketches.
Funds in the NEH grant were also earmarked for an oral history program to allow the research center staff to tape personal interviews with surviving participants of the 1930s project. More than 130 interviews have been taped so far with actors, directors and writers who are household names now, but were less than well-known then.
(Some of the 1930s names include actors Will Geer, Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, E.G. Marshall, Burt Lancaster, Estell Winwood, Arlene Frances and directors Elia Kazan, Jules Dassin, John Houseman and John Huston.)
A more recent grant of $7,000 came from the Rockefeller Foundation for additional use for videotape to augment the oral history program. Three pilot tapes have been completed, and others are planned, Brown said.
Funds also continue to come from George Mason University, which has provided housing space, overhead costs, staff salary support and other essential services, Sundell said. He estimated total university contributions of nearly $100,000 to date.