Dangerous Theatre

The Federal Theatre Project as a Forum for New Plays

Non-Fiction - Art/Photography
330 Pages
Reviewed on 03/14/2023
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers' Favorite

The Great Depression witnessed masses of people struggling to survive. Whilst most historians record the dire need of general laborers, what is often overlooked is the dire need of struggling artists, particularly those who worked in live theatre. When Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA), providing jobs for the unemployed, a subsidiary group under the guidance of producer and playwright Hallie Flanagan established the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), with the intent of providing work for unemployed entertainers and writers. It was a short-lived venture, 1935-1939, as the group was accused of promoting Socialist and Communist propaganda. But, in the short duration of its existence, the project assisted thousands of theatre workers and it had branches all across the United States. It was an intense project which met with multiple obstacles but its impact on American theatre cannot be ignored.

George Kazacoff’s book, Dangerous Theatre: The Federal Theatre Project as a Forum for New Plays, takes an intense look at the history of this short-lived program and the impact it had on American theatre. The author provides a conclusive look behind the scenes of the works produced under this project and the magnitude of its productions across the country. He analyses and argues the merits of the project’s intentions and what it actually accomplished, explaining in great detail how effective, or ineffective, the project was in promoting new plays. In spite of the fact that the FTP did not result in any great theatrical productions, it remains one of the most overlooked theatre projects anywhere. The author presents a thorough discourse on the overall influence the FTP has had in theatre arts, and the other arts as well, making this book a fascinating as well as a thoroughly detailed look at an important part of American history, as a whole, but particularly American theatrical and artistic history.

Randy B. Lichtman

For anyone interested in the history of American theatre or the history of the New Deal in the 1930s, Dangerous Theatre: The Federal Theatre Project as a Forum for New Plays by George Kazacoff is a wonderful and complete description of the theatre project from 1935-1939. The author has done an amazing amount of research surrounding that project, including play synopsis and critical reviews of the plays presented as part of the Federal Theatre Project. The title comes from the “dangerous ideas” that many members of Congress used as the reason to defund the program after 4 years that put 12,500 theatre people back to work. In addition, it reached 30 million theatregoers (65% of which were seeing theatre for the first time) and only spent 0.5% of the Works Progress Administration. But it was dangerous as it contained ideas across the political spectrum, including those considered socialistic or communistic and supported the ideals of putting good people back to work. The author also suggests that there was a motive to embarrass the current president at that time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With less than a century since that time, the issues of politics looking to discredit and defund art due to political and personal ideals have not changed.

The book is well organized focusing on the various New York Units, the specific geographic units, and a conclusion that summarizes the challenges that the Federal Theatre Project had to meet to survive. It is well documented and supported by extensive research that provides a clear picture of the organization and works presented as well as the critical and public response to the works. It is an excellent study of the entire Federal Theatre Project and its impact on the country. Dangerous Theatre: The Federal Theatre Project as a Forum for New Plays by George Kazacoff is an excellent book to understand how the project built great interest and provided jobs for so many actors and theatre professionals during a challenging time. Looking at not only the historical but political aspects shows us the importance of defending free speech in art against those who want to silence the messages that they disagree with. The book is very relevant in the importance of preserving a theatre that allows playwrights to communicate important views. This is an excellent history of the Federal Theatre Project and is highly recommended.

Astrid Iustulin

The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) lasted for a short time, from 1935 to 1939, but it was an experiment of great importance. Now, George Kazacoff devotes a comprehensive study to it, Dangerous Theatre: The Federal Theatre Project as a Forum for New Plays. This book enlightens you about the activity of the FTP and the production of plays presented for the first time to the American audience. From New York City to the West, Kazacoff explores every region where the FTP operated, offering an exhaustive account of its purposes and the organization of each unit. Dangerous Theatre lingers on the response to the plays and the criticism raised by them. Moreover, the study presents accurate synopses and information about the direction and production of the plays.

Exploring a complex and fascinating world is never an easy task, but Dangerous Theatre meets all requirements to be an insightful and informative work. George Kazacoff's study is well documented and written. In his meticulous analysis, the author identifies the difficulties and strong points of the FTP. He also makes it clear that the FTP's primary focus was to help unemployed writers and theater workers in a difficult time, often at the expense of the quality of the texts. I like Kazakoff's emphasis on the different features of the plays in various regions and his remarks on their outcomes. Overall, Dangerous Theatre is one of those books that you read for the pleasure of having a precise and informed point of view, and that helps you have a clear opinion of the subject.

Sefina Hawke

Dangerous Theatre (The Federal Theatre Project as a Forum for New Plays) by George Kazacoff is a non-fiction art and photography book that would appeal most to a mixed audience of young adults and adults interested in the Federal Theatre Project. The Federal Theatre Project was a forum for new plays that existed during 1935-1939; this book examines the new plays, which were presented by the Project. The author examines the entire process from how the plays were written, evaluated, tested, and later produced. Are you ready to learn about The Federal Theatre Project, the plays the project produced, and the entire process a play went through before it was produced?

Dangerous Theatre (The Federal Theatre Project as a Forum for New Plays) by George Kazacoff is a well-written dissertation that gives a new understanding of The Federal Theatre Project not just in New York, but also the other various regions that were involved in new plays. I enjoyed the history of the different productions in regards to the way the author explored what went into the various plays in The Experimental Theatre, like Chalk Dust, Battle Hymn, Path of Flowers, and Native Ground. I found the entire book rather informative in nature. Prior to reading this book, I was not aware of The Federal Theatre Project, but reading it really opened my eyes to everything that goes into producing a play. The book has also served to inspire me to become interested in the plays which were produced by the Project and to research them to see which ones I could perhaps view today.

Vincent Dublado

Dangerous Theatre: The Federal Theatre Project as a Forum for New Plays by George Kazacoff is a significant piece of work that delves into the history of the various production units of the Federal Theatre Project and not just on the work of the New York City Regional Unit. It is relevant in the sense that no formal study of the FTP has looked into it as a significant forum for new plays, and most publications focus on its major and most spectacular productions. They rarely (or do not) make references to the works of other units like Los Angeles or in the Southwest. Kazacoff presents his work that gives you a composite view of the FTP and its behind-the-scenes operation. It examines how American and foreign plays and musicals were presented to American audiences during the four years of the FTP’s existence from 1935 to 1939.

Dangerous Theatre will appeal to anyone who has an interest in history. The FTP was a unique and influential experiment in American theater as it was. For the first time, the federal government dipped into its pockets to subsidize the country’s theater. As the FTP was established during the Great Depression, it became part of the New Deal as a relief measure to employ artists, writers, directors, and theater workers. Kazacoff has done his best to provide a dissertation that covers plenty of invaluable information about the FTP. One focus that strikes me in this work is how actors and writers walk a thin wire, as relief and popular appeal competed with the goal of training and the writing of relevant contemporary issues, and budget cuts intensified dismissals. Still, the FTP remained dangerous and an affront to many, as they aspired to reach out and represent the experiences of a wider audience regardless of their skin color. You owe it to yourself to read about this little-known episode in the world of American theater that makes a significant dent in history.