The University of Wisconsin Press

American History / Theater & Performance / African American Studies


Voices from the Federal Theatre
Bonnie Nelson Schwartz and the Educational Film Center
Foreword by Robert Brustein

"The miracle of the Federal Theatre lies precisely in thisthat from a drab and painful relief project there sprang the liveliest, most innovative, and most original theatre of its era."
—John Houseman

The Federal Theatre Project, a 1930s relief project of the Roosevelt administration, brought more theater to more people in every corner of America that at any time in U.S. history. The Project had units in every region of the country, including groundbreaking African American troupes, and staged productions from daring dramas like The Voodoo Macbeth, Waiting for Lefty, and The Cradle Will Rock to musicals, vaudeville, and puppet shows. It was canceled in a firestorm of controversy that gave birth to the damning question: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?"

This book documents that vibrant, colorful, politically explosive time, which gave rise to bitter debates about the role of government in American art and culture. It includes interviews with such Federal Theatre actors, playwrights, directors, designers, producers, and dancers as Arthur Miller, Studs Terkel, Jules Dassin, Katherine Dunham, Rosetta Lenoire, John Houseman, and many others.

"Chicago had a big Republic Steel plant on the Southside. Memorial Day in 1937, the strikers had a picnic on those grounds. There was fried chicken, potato salad, women, kids, songs, baseball, and there was some cops there. . . . Someone threw a stone, and you know cops started shooting, shot ten guys in the back, and they killed those ten guys. Here's where the Federal Theatre came in. Cradle Will Rock was about a steel strike. Cradle Will Rock was metaphorical, a pro-union play and was considered evolutionary and outrageous. So that's the kind of stuff we used to do."Studs Terkel

"In the Depression, it was all but impossible for a Left writer not to think of the act of writing as a fulcrum for social change."Arthur Miller

Bonnie Nelson Schwartz is a producer for the Broadway stage, film and television. She has worked on more than 100 plays, films, television programs, and concert specials worldwide. Bonnie Nelson Schwartz is a producer in theater, film, and television. She has worked on more than one hundred plays, films, television programs, specials, and concerts in Washington, D.C., New York, and London. On Broadway she coproduced Pack of Lies, starring Rosemary Harris and Patrick McGoohan; Ian McKellan: Acting Shakespeare; Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood; and Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair with the Theatre Guild. Her off-Broadway credits include Dylan Thomas: Return Journey, directed by Anthony Hopkins, and Babalooney. Ms. Schwartz is the creator and original producer of Washington, D.C.'s Helen Hayes Awards. She produced the Atlanta portion of the closing ceremonies for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. For the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, she cocreated and produced The Olympic Woman, a multimedia exhibition, with book and videos, on the history of women in the Olympic Games. Recent productions include Give My Regards to Broadway: 125 Years of the Musical Theatre at Carnegie Hall; the London production of Panbeaters, a play with music; and In Concert against Hate: A Tribute to the Heroes of 9/11 with the National Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Schwartz is currently coproducing an independent feature film in South Africa, based on Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer's book My Son's Story, and a television special, Harlem in Paris.

The Educational Film Center (EFC) is a non-profit educational television-video-film-and-interactive multimedia production company. For more information about the Educational Film Center, click here.

There is a press kit for this title. Media & bookseller inquiries regarding review copies, events, and interviews can be directed to the publicity department at or (608) 263-0734. (If you want to examine a book for possible course use, please see our Course Books page. If you want to examine a book for possible rights licensing, please see Rights & Permissions.)

cover of Schwartz's book shows a collage of images from the Federal Theatre backed by some theatre curtains

October 2003
LC: 2003007240 PN
200 pp. 6 x 9 b/w photographs

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ISBN 978-0-299-18324-0
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ISBN 978-0-299-18320-2
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The Terrace Books logo is designed in the shape of a book with a Union chair in silhouette on the cover. The words Terrace Books, Madison, Wisconsin appear also.

Voices from the Federal Theatre ties-in with the Fall 2003 television special for public broadcasting "Who Killed the Federal Theatre: An Investigation" hosted by Judd Hirsch and coproduced by Schwartz with the Educational Film Center.

"I was in Macbeth. I played one of the witches. I also remember so many fights in the lobby about having people of black skin play Shakespearean shows. If it was a maid's role go ahead, but if it was something like that from the classics. . . . Mr. Welles would raise hell if anybody was in the least nasty to me or tried to ignore me or tried to confuse me. Orson Welles was something else I'm telling you."

Rosetta LeNoire

"The Federal Theatre was a part of a movement in America to put people to work. Among the unemployed people, as well as mechanics and metal workers, were actors and artists. And this wonderful idea to put them to work in the cultural field was such a big moment for America—for education . . . for culture—that we still mourn the loss."
Jules Dassin

An appendix is available that provides important additional material:
Voices Before Congress: Hearings before the Committee on Patents, House of Representatives of the Seventy-Fifth Congress, Third Session, February 7-11, 1938

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