Tacoma Playwrights' Unit of the Federal Theatre Project

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 1/17/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5056
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Clarence Talbot, Seattle playwright and actor, and Guy Williams, state director of the Federal Theatre project, formed the Tacoma Playwrights’ Unit of the Project in early 1936. The Federal Theatre Project (1935-39) was a work-relief program for theater professionals funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Drama League of Tacoma sponsored the Tacoma Unit, which was housed in a small building in the Old Town section of the city. Its mission was to present workshop productions of new plays by Washington state writers. In Tacoma the plays tended to present conventional entertainment rather than engaging social and political issues as did many Federal Theatre Project productions elsewhere.

Escape and Diversion

The productions were meant to be vehicles for Northwest writers to show their work. The Unit sought to entertain its audiences and to provide them with temporary escape and diversion from Depression Era troubles. The Tacoma Unit produced 11 plays during its year-long existence. These included a production of Sinclair Lewis’ anti-Fascist drama It Can’t Happen Here, which opened simultaneously on October 27, 1936 in 21 theaters across 21 states to mark the FTP’S first anniversary.

The Tacoma Playwright’s Unit mounted a new production every two weeks under the direction of Clarence Talbot. All the productions with the exception of It Can’t Happen Here were staged readings rather than full productions. Defending his choice of subject matter in later years, Talbot contrasted the Washington state audience with that of New York and Los Angeles. Washington citizens “expected something they could understand in the area of conventional theatrical entertainment. They wanted mysteries, they wanted comedies, they wanted romantic stories” (Kazacoff, p. 289).

Conflicting Agendas

In late 1936, Clarence Talbot resigned from the Federal Theatre Project due to conflict with National Director Hallie Flanagan. Talbot felt that Flanagan dictated content to the regional units and that the social and political messages were inappropriate for Tacoma audiences and did not appeal to them.

The Tacoma Playwrights’ Unit was then folded into existing Seattle Federal Theatre Project units.


George Kazakoff, Dangerous Theatre: The Federal Theatre Project As A Forum For New Plays (New York: Peter Lang, 1989); Staff of the Fenwick Library, George Mason University, The Federal Theatre Project: A Catalog-Calender Of Productions (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Milton Meltzer, Violins And Shovels: The WPA Arts Projects, A New Deal For America’s Hungry Artists (New York: Delacorte Press, 1976); Paula Becker interview with Seattle FTP scholar Barry Witham, October 1, 1902.

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