A time to dream


Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 11 / Day 7

Week 11 / Day 6

Week 11 / Day 5

Week 11 / Day 4

Week 11 / Day 3

Week 11 / Day 2

Week 11 / Day 1

Introduction

About a month ago, I called a close friend I haven’t spoken to in a long time. We talked for hours, as we always do, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve spoken; we spoke about what was going on in our lives and in the world, how we were experiencing the pandemic and how we were feeling about the future. Although she’s been shielding due to an underlying condition, she surprised me by saying that since the world is on pause, she’s found it to be a good time to dream up ideas for a better, more exciting future. It was the first (and only) time someone has said this to me. Not: everything is a disaster, or: the world we knew is lost, but rather: let’s dream.


In the US and the UK, the theatre world is facing two major challenges:

  • Extinction

  • Irrelevance.

Thousands of theatre buildings and companies have closed and thousands more artists have been furloughed or lost their jobs. We don’t know when it will be safe to reopen buildings again, but when we do, the world is going to look very different – politically, socially, economically.


In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, both British and American theatre communities are reckoning with how white the industry has been historically and continues to be, and how this has affected the kind of work that is being made, how it is being made and who is seeing it. Some companies and artists have been working towards meaningful change for years, while most have only just woken up and are now figuring out how to make statements, commit to actions and reconceptualise their futures.


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the Federal Theatre Project. I got really into the FTP a number of years ago when I was writing a book on writing and collaboration. I couldn’t believe there was an experimental, collaborative theatre initiative rolled out on a national scale in the US, under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration; it was designed as a system of government-subsidized theatres employing thousands of actors, directors, writers, designers and technicians in theatres across the country. In 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression. And it was run by a woman.


Director Hallie Flanagan used the project as a testing ground for new and innovative approaches to collaboration, to which she had been exposed during a tour of theatres across Europe in the 1920s. In an essay called ‘Democracy and the Drama,’ Flanagan describes the importance of the project:


The Federal Theatre is a pioneer theatre because it is part of a tremendous re-thinking, re-building and re-dreaming of America […] 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. [1]


Re-thinking, re-building, re-dreaming. Re-dreaming. Even in 1935, the idea of a dream was considered vital to the future of theatre. Flanagan encouraged theatre artists to test out new ideas that would bring theatre to parts of the country that didn’t have theatre. Similarly, in 1946, when Britain was still knee-deep in rationing, rubble and war debt, the Arts Council was chartered to increase access to the arts for everyone across the war-weary country. Both of these initiatives emerged from periods of great hardship and poverty that gave birth to different versions of the welfare state (NHS and social housing in the UK, Social Security in the US). The Arts Council is still alive and kicking, but sadly the FTP folded in 1939 when its funding was rescinded by the House Committee on Un-American Activities who thought it was a front for communist activities (surprise, surprise).


Before it met an untimely death, in its short lifespan of only four years, the FTP produced classic plays, new writing, radio, dance, foreign language plays (German, Spanish and Yiddish), Living Newspaper plays and, most surprisingly for the 1930s, a ‘Negro Theatre Unit’, committed to producing theatre and dance made by black artists in a number of chapters across America. At a time when much of the country was segregated under the Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan was rife and public lynchings were common, it seems extraordinary that there was a federally funded programme to produce performance largely made by black artists, targeting black audiences. The most well-known production that emerged from this unit is the Macbeth directed by Orson Welles, which became popularly known as the ‘Voodoo Macbeth’. (An entirely black cast but directed by a white man. I wonder how far we have come since the ‘30s.)


Even more extraordinarily, the Negro Theatre Unit was headed up by a black woman and acclaimed Broadway actor called Rose McClendon. It was modelled on a company she had previously started called the Negro People’s Theatre.


I was listening to a podcast this morning with an interview with scholar Ibram X. Kendi on his recent book How to Be an Antiracist. What struck me especially about this interview was how kind and empathetic Kendi was; he said he isn’t interested in shaming people and that he understands that antiracist work is hard work, tiring work, thankless work. But at the same time, how frank he was in saying there are only two choices: to be racist or antiracist.


It is now late, I am tired and it won’t be long before my editors in the UK will be waking up and opening their emails in anticipation of my final blog entry. I wish I had some great words of wisdom for the challenges we face as an industry. All I can say is, we have a long way to go, but maybe we can get there by dreaming. After all, as Hallie Flanagan said all those years ago, theatre must become not merely a decoration, but a vital force in our democracy.


The opening night of Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre, New York, 14 April 1936. Rose McClendon is second from the right.

Photo credit: Federal Theatre Project, Wikimedia Commons.

References:


[1] O’Connor, John and Lorraine Brown, ed. Free, Adult, Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project (London: Eyre Methuen Limited, 1980), p.26.

Sarah Sigal is a freelance writer, dramaturg, director and researcher working in physical theatre, devised work, site-specific and interactive theatre and new writing. As well as working in performance spaces, she also creates, facilitates and curates work for unusual spaces and events and is interested in the possibilities for theatre-making. Originally from Chicago and based in London, she has a BA from Gettysburg College and an MA and PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London. She has taught at a number of British universities as a freelance lecturer and her book Writing in Collaborative Theatre-making was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan. She was the Live Performance Programmer at JW3 from 2016-2019 and has just completed a LABA Fellowship at the 14th St Y (NYC). She is a member of the Dramaturgs’ Network Advisory Board. She is currently working on adapting her play Agent of Influence into a novel and writing the libretto for a new opera called The Agency with composer Matthew Olyver, which will premiere as a scratch at the Têt à Têt Festival in September. Website: sarahsigal.com Twitter: @SigalSarah

Portrait photography is courtesy of the author.

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