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.

As is often the case with such large (and unpaid) casts, the many artistic commitments of the actors have made for a scheduling nightmare. For the Wednesday night rehearsal eight days before opening, Turiskylie and Anderson determine that the full cast must be present for the first time. In the day running up to this rehearsal, Alex Cole, who plays Works Progress Administration creator Harry Hopkins, is bumped from several flights as he tries to fly back from sitcom auditions in L.A. And cast member Tim Mitchell suffers massive chest pains at work Wednesday afternoon, and the paramedics come. He leaves the emergency room without a diagnosis, though, in order to sneak off to rehearsal. (Mitchell, who works as a comic, has other issues with federal support of its citizens--like health insurance.)

The protagonists of Turiskylie's script are Orson Welles (Raine Hokan) and Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan (Jennifer Kirkeby), and as the play--and history--casts them, their motivations in shaping the FTP are diametrically opposed. Flanagan toiled out of a fundamental belief in theater's power to educate and inspire. She dreamed of establishing a national theater that would survive well after the funding stopped. Welles toiled out of a fundamental belief in his own power to do, well, anything. He dreamed of establishing himself as a deity whose name and reputation would last long after his life stopped.

Hallie Flanagan was considered one of the brightest young experimental-theater minds in the country when she accepted the job of director of the FTP. Her background included a 1927-28 Guggenheim fellowship to study comparative methods of theater in England, Ireland, Scandinavia, France, Austria, Italy, Germany, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. She ideated a theater that would not just entertain, but inform, not just employ, but educate and inspire. Perhaps if audiences saw the conditions of the tenements, she thought, they would be inspired to do something about them. In a late-'30s essay, "Democracy and Drama," Flanagan wrote:

The Federal Theatre is a pioneer theatre because it is part of a tremendous re-thinking, re-building, and re-dreaming of America... These activities represent the new frontier in America, a frontier against disease, dirt, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and despair, and at the same time against selfishness, special privilege and social apathy. And in the struggle for a better life, our actors know what they are talking about; the Federal Theatre, being their theatre, becomes not merely a decoration but a vital force in our democracy.

Because of Flanagan's influence, the drama of the FTP became what producer John Houseman called "the liveliest, most innovative, and most original theatre of its era." It introduced the abstract political expression of Brecht and Meyerhold's Europe to the United States--an introduction that was essential to the experimental theater revolution in the 1960s. At the same time, FTP productions faced constant scrutiny from anti-communist watchdogs and anti-Roosevelt senators determined to protect the interest of the almighty taxpayer (or die grandstanding).

One of the most scrutinized and most successful of the productions, and the focus of the first act of Project 891, introduced a 20-year-old Orson Welles to New York and to the country. Welles was brought on by John Houseman to direct the New York Negro Theatre. (Black and white leaders alike considered it essential that white men assume the leadership of the nascent Negro Theatres; given the position of blacks in the theater at the time, it was believed the establishment wouldn't take black directors and producers seriously.) Welles proposed for his first effort an all-black Macbeth set in Haiti, a "voodoo" Macbeth as it would soon be known.

Turiskylie juxtaposes the trying conditions of unemployed black actors with images of the happily employed white actors playing Amos and Andy on the radio. (AMOS: I can't vote fo' no Republican Andy. De republicans ain't never done nuthin' fo' me.) So, too, her script offers apt examples of what parts these actors were typically allowed to play. When an actor named Larry Blake comes in to audition, he tells Welles and Houseman, "I used to be half of a vaudeville team. Blake and Brooster. Song, Dance and Snappy Patter...I do a great Stepin Fetchit, 'Hun-ah, wu you read dis her' letter fo' me--Ahm so tired from sittin' her' all day.'" When Orson asks him to read for the part of the porter, Larry jokes, "Porter. I've played so many porters the railroad sent me a union card."

At the time, it was unheard of for black actors to play in the classics--which were thought of as "white plays." So Flanagan was thrilled with the idea of a Harlem Macbeth, as were the black actors queued around the block to audition. Yet Welles was not universally celebrated for his efforts, even by seeming allies on the left. The Negro Communist Party in New York condemned the production, dismissing this Macbeth as another minstrel show, a white man's plan to make blacks look foolish by having them recite a drama they've never staged. Early in the rehearsals, Welles was physically attacked by an angry group assumed to be from the Party. Regardless of (or perhaps thanks to) criticism from extremists from both wings, 10,000 people came to see Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre on opening night. Project 891 uses sound effects and a harried news reporter to try to capture the feel:

BRIAN: This is Brian Campbell, CBS, here at the premiere ofMacbeth... For the benefit of our listening audience who can't see what's happening in Harlem tonight: The city has estimated that 10,000 people are here for the opening. Traffic's been backed up around the Lafayette for an hour, and the police are here to make sure that ticket holders can actually get into the theatre.

Turiskylie dramatizes a chorus of critics shouting their approval, using lines from actual reviews, and the exhilarated response she shows does not exaggerate the critical acclaim Welles's Macbeth received. One of the most vivid accounts she quotes comes from New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson:

The witches have always worried the life out of the polite tragic stage... But ship the witches down into the rank and fever-stricken jungle of Haiti, dress them in fantastic costumes, crowd the stage with mad and gabbing throngs of evil worshipers, beat the jungle drums, raise the voices until the jungle echoes, stuff a gleaming naked witch doctor into the cauldron, hold up Negro masks in the baleful light--and there you have a witches' scene that is logical and stunning and a triumph of theatre art.

Only one New York critic gave Macbeth a negative review: Percy Hammond of the New York Herald Tribune. In Project 891, Hammond bursts through the crowd of chattering critics and begins to recite: "This experiment goes to prove once and for all that blacks should be confined to playing only black subjects in the theater. I'll certainly be thinking of this performance when I pay my taxes."

The Herald Tribune, which also ran the Minneapolis Journal's Ruby Bae story, was part of the Hearst press, a conservative syndicate that delighted in criticizing the WPA. The treatment the FTP received from the newspapers in William Randolph Hearst's empire did not go unnoticed by Orson Welles. His megalomaniacal newspaper mogul, Citizen Charles Foster Kane, bore an uncanny resemblance to Hearst--well-documented in a wonderful PBS documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane and alluded to in the script by a simple utterance, "Damn Hearst press!"

Hammond, in his life and in the play, got his due as well. Welles had found a group of African drummers, stranded in the states by hard times, and they provided the music for the "voodoo" Macbeth. The drummers were rather displeased with Hammond's opinion, and naturally directed evil spirits his way (Turiskylie has the African holding up a voodoo doll, saying "Percy Hammond, he is bad man. He gave bad review.") A week later, Hammond contracted pneumonia and died--the kind of dramatic twist that no author could best.

In 1939, WPA's name was changed to Works Projects Administration. A clue to the motivation behind the change can be found in a line from Project 891: SENATOR: I ask you, gentlemen. The W--P--A.Works--Progress--Administration. Progress! If ever a word smacked of Communist leanings, it would be the word Progress.

By the time Progress was displaced by Project, The Federal Theatre was dead--killed not so much by government, but by politics. As the economy began to improve in 1938, tolerance for government-subsidized undertakings lessened, and a little group called the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Martin Dies of Texas, took as one of its debut tasks the investigation of the FTP. New Jersey Republican J. Parnell Thomas announced that "The Federal Theatre Project not only is serving as a branch of the communistic organization but is also one more link in the vast and unparalleled New Deal propaganda machine." While he was at it, Thomas asserted that applicants for the FTP had to join the Communist Workers Alliance, and that Flanagan herself had written and produced a Communist play in Soviet Russia. None of these allegations was true--a technicality that had no effect on the fate of the FTP.

Part of what earned the FTP this attention was a proposed Project 891 production of a new play titled The Cradle Will Rock, a saga well-documented in Rosebud (David Thomson's informed, but peculiar, biography of Welles) and in the second half of Turiskylie's play. The script was written by a talented young composer--and Socialist--named Marc Blitzen. Under the advisement of one Bertolt Brecht, Blitzen had developed a small sketch about prostitution into an epic about labor strikes and capitalist abuses in Steeltown, USA, featuring fat cats, bad cops, and a whore with a heart of gold. Welles fell in love with the opera, and Flanagan approved it without reservation.

As Cradle prepared to open, steel riots were popping up all over the Midwest. The New York Times reported that the opera was a pro-union account of a steel strike, and accounts of Blitzen's political leanings reached Washington. The WPA sent guards to padlock the theater the day before the show was to open.

Cradle was not alone in catching the attention of politicians. The FTP produced a number of plays that overtly or subtly dealt with class issues. Of course, a good number of plays in the dramatic canon are about these issues, but to HUAC and the political culture it created, class consciousness spelled communism. In his interrogation of Flanagan during the HUAC hearings, Chairman Dies asked, "Do you not also think that since the Federal Theatre Project is an agency of the government and that all of our people support it through their tax money,... that no play should ever be produced which undertakes to portray the interest of one class to the disadvantage of another class..."

HUAC's attention made WPA officials uncomfortable at the same time as they were scheduled to appear before the House Appropriation Committee, as explicated in Jane DeHart Mathews's history The Federal Theatre 1935-1939. The dramatizations of these transactions in Project 891 are absurdly comical--and straight from the record.

CONGRESSMAN STARNES: Chairman Dies, may I take this moment to quote again from an article written by Mrs. Flanagan in which she states, 'The worker's theatres intend to shape the life of this country, socially, politically and industrially. They intend to remake a social structure without the help of money--and this ambition alone invests their undertaking with a certain Marlowesque madness.' You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a communist?

HALLIE: I am very sorry. I was quoting from Christopher Marlowe.

STARNES: Tell us who Marlowe is, so we can get the proper reference, because that is all we want to do.

HALLIE: Put in the record that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare.

In Turiskylie's play, and in history, Flanagan spends much of her time in front of government committees explaining the mysterious nature of theater to suspicious government officials who take "social significance" to mean communist leanings. The modern-day resonances of such an inquisition are unspoken in Project 891. Yet they remain the silent core of a production that takes place a month after the NEA was neutered by a Supreme Court ruling. Yesterday's communism has become today's standard of decency. (Indeed, the story of the FTP is being made into a film called The Cradle Will Rock written and directed by Tim Robbins, who based the screenplay loosely on a script Orson Welles wrote shortly before his death.)

Turiskylie says, "As we work on this play, people have asked me, 'So what's your take on arts funding?' The bottom line is, I don't know. The play is very timely, certainly. I'm hoping that the play leaves it open enough for people to form their own conclusions. I don't want it to come across as an episode of The Facts of Life. I do know, though, that if we hadn't had government funding in the FTP, we wouldn't have had Citizen Kane."

At the time the House voted to cut back on relief programs in 1939, WPA officials were all too willing to sacrifice the FTP and its political embarrassments. And when Roosevelt eventually signed the 1939 relief bill which eliminated the FTP (a veto would have ended the entire WPA) he said, "This singles out a special group of professional people for a denial of work in their profession. It is discrimination of the worst type."

DeHart Mathews documents that at the very end of the last performance of Pinocchio at the Ritz Theatre in New York, instead of becoming a real boy, Pinocchio died as a wooden marionette "while the cast chanted, 'So let the bells proclaim our grief/That his small life was much too brief.' In full view of the audience, stagehands knocked down the sets and actors intoned: 'Thus passed Pinocchio. Born December 23, 1938, died June 30, 1939. Killed by Act of Congress.'"

Rest in peace.

Project 891 runs at the Southern Theater Thursdays through Sundays through August 30; call 340-1725.

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