The Red Curtain

A new play, "Project 891", puts the spotlight on New Deal theater, HUAC, and the mother of all arts-funding debates.

December 13, 1935. A picture of a stripper flanked by ostrich-feather fans graces the front page of the Minneapolis Journal. The headline reads: Ruby Bae, Put Out of Job by Police, Becomes Federal Fan Dancer No. 1. Bae, according to the article, had been employed by the Minnesota Works Progress Administration project No. 1, drama division--the state offshoot of the New Deal Federal Theatre Project designed to put theater professionals on relief back to work.

The article reads:

Under the official cloak of the Minnesota works progress administration No. 1 and two fans, the lithe manipulator of the nervous ostrich feathers will carry the culture of the theatre to Minnesota's Civilian Conservation Corps boys. Far up into the hinterlands she will go to ward off winter cold with her waving plumes... Ruby herself became eligible to enroll in Minnesota WPA project No. 1 when Minneapolis police arrested her for cavorting about Coffee Dan's night club in the nude, fined her $50 for disorderly conduct and closed the club, putting Ruby and her two fans on the official unemployment list.

The picture and the story were picked up by papers all around the country, causing a public-relations disaster for the FTP. Minnesota's project was promptly canceled, and $53,000 in funding returned to Washington.

A few months earlier, when FTP administrator E.C. Mabie was scouting locations for prospective programs, he reported that Minnesota was the most "theatrically promising" of all Midwestern states. A 1935 Minneapolis welfare survey showed 165 people eligible for theatrical employment, according to Arena, the autobiography of FTP director Hallie Flanagan.

Professor A. Dale Riley of the University of Minnesota drama department was put in charge of the project (for a salary of $1 a year), and laid plans for vaudeville and marionette troupes, a children's theater, and a regular company that would produce new plays and a wide variety of Scandinavian classics.

There were not any plans for fan dancers. Ruby Bae indeed auditioned for Minnesota's project--as a tap dancer. The vociferously anti-New Deal Journal had concocted the story, using a years-old photo of Bae from their files. In fact, Bae was never even put on the roster of the Federal Theatre Project. The Journal, though, should be given credit for some vivid writing:

Patrolmen G.J. Aitchison and Robert Vollum and their wives went to the night clubs one night last summer, sat through two floor shows, and came away with Ruby. They contended she danced without "A nickel's worth of clothes on." Ruby contended she did have a nickel's worth of clothes on.

Professor Riley's expense account for the first vaudeville section of the drama division of Minnesota WPA project No. 1--

Ruby Bae--fan dancer--costume $00.05.

While the national history of the Federal Theatre Project is significantly longer than our state's, that story, too, is informed by political maneuvering, as a new play by local writer and filmmaker Joyce Turiskylie illustrates. The play, which opens at the Southern Theater this week, tells the story of the government's first experiment with federally subsidized art. The title, Project 891, refers to the moniker of an FTP branch in New York, conceived of and directed by a young Orson Welles and devoted to producing "the classics." Under the auspices of Projects No. 623 and No. 891, Welles directed two of the FTP's most famous and controversial productions--a Macbeth for Harlem and a new opera called The Cradle Will Rock. The juxtaposition of these productions in Turiskylie's play illustrates both the groundbreaking theater that was birthed in the FTP and the political posturing that brought it down.

Turiskylie, 31, is a self-described history buff who has long been interested in the little-told story of the FTP. Several years ago, while working toward a deadline for a workshop at the Playwrights' Center, Turiskylie found herself unable to complete the script she was crafting. With a few weeks left to write, she abandoned her work on a late-night whim, and started a different play about the Federal Theatre Project. It seemed she had something: The draft was well-received, and, encouraged by her peers, Turiskylie continued to develop it for several years. The result is a script that manages to be faithful to history while standing on its own as an imaginative dramatic work. It's peppered with humor and paced swiftly, and achieves the difficult end of seeming like a play instead of a history lesson.

By day, Turiskylie works with local modeling and talent agency All About Face as the owner's right hand. By night, she waits tables at Acme Comedy Company, where she met J. Karin Peterson, a board member of local independent company Arena Theatre. After a time, Turiskylie mentioned the script she was writing in her spare hours at home. "From then on it became a matter of 'How do we get this done?'" says Anderson. "I was drawn to the script because all my life I've been interested in the fact that the arts have so little help from the government."

That funding issue has informed Arena Theatre's production to a surprising extent. Government grants, Turiskylie explains, carry the stipulation that the work cannot address subject matter related to pending legislation. As a result, Project 891 is made possible by the favors of friends, loved ones, and casual acquaintances--and by those ever-generous benefactors Visa and MasterCard. The circles that Turiskylie and Peterson travel in have led to some other unconventional contributions: The cast features local rocker and scenester Willie Wisely and comedians Alex Cole, Greg Fidler, and Marti Gaiter.

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