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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Special Section:
Theatre Arts in the Great Depression

Washington State's Federal Theatre Project founded new companies and created new possibilities for imaging what theatre could be -- and who could perform -- during the Great Depression. Shown here is the Negro Repertory Company's production of Stevedore, about a longshoremen's strike, in Seattle, 1936. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington Librrary Special Collections.)

The Great Depression dealt Washington State’s theatre industry a serious blow. As an entertainment industry, the theatre was already weakened by the rise of film in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Once-thriving vaudeville circuits dried up, and it seemed that the local professional theatre scene had largely disappeared.  However, federal funding for theatre—one of five arts programs designated under Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration—provided a space for Washington’s theatre companies and personalities to experiment with new artistic and social ideas on stage, legacies of civic engagement and community theatre that are still visible in Washington’s theatre scene today.

Despite the crisis, theatre in Washington State, particularly in Seattle, was developing in promising ways during the Depression years. At the University of Washington, the dynamic Glenn Hughes was working to improve the profile of the young drama program, then a division of the English department. On Capitol Hill, another academic theatre—the Cornish Theatre at the Cornish School—began developing its reputation as a centre for the avant-garde arts in America.

Washington State’s community and civic theatres continued to operate throughout the Depression as well – the Tacoma Drama League, the Bellingham Theatre Guild and the Spokane Little Theatre served larger communities in the state, while in Seattle, Florence and Burton James founded their own Seattle Repertory Playhouse in the University District. At the Seattle Rep, the Jameses worked to create a socially relevant theatre and offered both classics and contemporary pieces with high artistic standards. The Jameses also sponsored the creation of a Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, and developed a touring company that brought theatre to rural communities in the state. They ran an in-house training program and offered the first summer drama festival on the West Coast.

Theatre received its largest boost from the creation of the Federal Theatre Project, and Washington State would become one of the most vibrant of the regional projects nation-wide. The Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal program run from 1935-1939, was designed to offer relief to unemployed theatre artists, and funded four companies in Washington State: the Negro Repertory Company, the Tacoma Unit (comprised of white actors), and a touring vaudeville Variety Company, whose remaining members were consolidated into a Children’s Unit when the FTP could no longer afford to pay for the touring company.

Barry Witham's book is the major source on the Federal Theatre Project and especially about the Seattle unit. This section relies heavily on the book.
Some of the Project’s most successful productions were those by the Negro Repertory Company—which is surprising, perhaps, when one considers that Seattle’s African American population was limited to about 4,000 during the period, and faced continued segregation and racism—and the Living Newspapers, in which regional political issues were dramatized for the stage. The legacy of the Children’s Unit was a long one, as Seattle continues to maintain a reputation for excellent children’s theatre nation-wide.

The Great Depression may have dealt something of a death blow to the Northwest’s professional theatre industry of the 1920s, but new federal funding for theatre during the Depression allowed for the exploration of new artistic and social ideas about the place of theatre in American life, ringing in a new era of theatrical production in Seattle.

Sarah Guthu is the coordinator of this special section on Theatre Arts. Barry Witham served as adviser to this section.


Tour the Theatre Arts special section:

Federal Theatre Project in Washington State, by Sarah Guthu

The FTP in Washington was one of the most vibrant in the country, including the Negro Repertory Unit, Living Newspaper theatre journalism, a Children's Unit, and hosted traveling productions to New Deal public works programs around the state.

Seattle's Negro Repertory Company:

Outside of New York City, Washington's FTP hosted the only all-African American company in the nation, who produced three plays: Stevedore, about a longshore strike; an all-black production of Lysistrata, which was closed down for its "scandalous" scenes; and a production written by the Negro Unit based on the life of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Stevedore (1936)

This play about a longshoremen's strike brought white and black actors together onstage to portray the tenuous racial solidarities produced by labor struggle, and brought the fledgling NRC national recognition.

Lysistrata (1937)

The NRC developed an all-African American production of Aristophanes' classic political comedy, which produced a controversy between the national and local Federal Theatre Project leadership, and also displayed the paternalistic approach FTP officials held toward the Negro Repertory Company.

An Evening with Dunbar (1938)

NRC members collaboratively developed this production, based on the life of poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

The Jameses and the Playhouse, by Sarah Guthu

The Jameses founded the Seattle Repertory Playhouse and played a crucial role in the development of the Federal Theatre Project in the state, as well as reimagining the role of theatre in Washington.

The Power of Art and the Fear of Labor: Seattle's Production of Waiting for Lefty in 1936, by Selena Voelker

The Jameses founded the Seattle Repertory Playhouse and played a crucial role in the development of the Federal Theatre Project in the state, as well as reimagining the role of theatre in Washington.

Living Newspapers:

These productions combined theatre with journalism, and brought regional controversies to life, including battles over public and private power; the regulation of syphilis; and immigration.

Power (1937)

This Living Newspaper production, dramatizing New Deal debates between private and publicly-owned utilities, resonated with Seattle residents who were debating between the private Puget Power Company and the public Seattle City Light.

One-Third of a Nation (1938)

The Washington Federal Theatre Project's longest-running production, a Living Newspaper, advocated for government-sponsored housing.

Spirochete (1939)

This Living Newspaper presented the history of syphilis and intervened in debates about venereal disease prevention in Seattle.