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Living Newspapers: When News Made the Theatre

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Top half of the front page of the playbill for Triple A Plowed Under which is in the format of a newspaper front page. Bold headline at the top reads 'Living Newspaper Goes to Press.'
The playbill for the March 21, 1936 production of “Triple-A Plowed Under” at the Biltmore Theatre, New York. Music Division.

How do newspapers relate to plays? When the play IS a newspaper!

The Federal Theatre Project (FTP), part of the Works Progress Administration’s efforts to provide work for unemployed people during the Great Depression, produced over 2,700 stage productions across the nation. Separate divisions within the FTP focused on different types of performances. One of them was the Living Newspaper unit which created plays with scenes that dramatized newspaper articles.

In collaboration with the American Newspaper Guild, the Living Newspaper headquarters in New York City wrote plays to send out to be performed by the regional FTP groups. Current events were transformed from the page to the stage.

A snip of an article titled 'Newspaper Guild Sponsors the Living Newspaper' taken from page 2 of the playbill for 'Triple A Plowed Under'.
Article from page 2 of the playbill for “Triple-A Plowed Under.” Music Division.
Series of 4 photographs showing the Living Newspaper creation process of newspaper staff working on the Assignment, Research, Transcription, and Production portions of the process.
“Editing the Living Newspaper.” Federal Theatre Vol. 1 No. 5. April 1936. Pg 16-17.

In the April 1936 issue of the “Federal Theater,” the monthly bulletin of the FTP, an article (with no attributed author) describes the Living Newspaper as a story “told with the objectiveness of an Associated Press news report and with the vividness of an acted play” (16).

The process of editing – not writing – the next edition (the next play) was not simple. The article goes on to describe the workflow:

The theme is chosen by the managing producer and the Federal Theatre director for New York City, in consultation with the national director. It then goes to round-table discussion, much as a board of editors would discuss the layout of a national news story for tomorrow’s edition.

The managing editor, who is also the head dramatist, then breaks down a subject into scenes, indicating as specifically as possible the treatment he has in mind for each scene, and passes this on to the city editor in charge of the research and editing staff.

This scenario is then parceled out as assignments to the research men with a dead-line of two or three days to get the material required (16).

The headlines would emerge and a story line placed in order. It was then translated into stage terms for exits and entrances, and the ten rewrite men on staff were in charge of putting the facts into dialogue.

All of this was done even before the script got to set and costume designers, light and sound technicians, stage managers and business managers. And in a turn-around time of 4 weeks!

Image of a newspaper article titled 'Local Drama Groups. There's a fact for every word in the living newspaper.'
“Local Drama Groups,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), May 16, 1938.

Accordingly, the subject matter of the Living Newspapers was nonfiction – realistic, current, relevant. The topics had to be widely applicable to the vast majority of the nation. Topics selected were the farming crisis, slum housing issues, public health, and the public and private ownership of utilities. If these topics sound too controversial, check out the plays that were written but not allowed to be produced – “Ethiopia” on Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and “Liberty Deferred” on racial inequality in America.

The topic was always recent and was often traced back through history for scope and context. “Injunction Granted,” a Living Newspaper about worker rights and labor unions, spans 200 years of history. Everything was up-to-the-minute accurate, with some scripts updated hours before the performance! They cited their sources, too, in footnoted scripts and playbill bibliographies. (More indexed terms and sources can be found in the Card File of the FTP in the Music Division FTP Collection.) Often the playbills were even formatted to look like newspapers, with each scene listed in the playbills corresponding with a news item.

Top half of the front page of the playbill for 'Injunction Granted,' with a photograph of a scene with one person on a platform and a crowd of people looking up at him.
Front page of the playbill for the July 24, 1936 production of “Injunction Granted.” Music Division.

The Living Newspapers could be considered a time capsule of the 1930s and an avenue to approach the daily news of the time.  What headlines were considered important enough to perform on a nation-wide stage? What issues were impactful enough to be relatable to a nation-wide audience? How did the headlines compare across the states? Not only are there reviews and reactions to the performances in newspapers, but also the original headlines.

Newspaper article headline 'Wheat Plan brings cash to farmers for growers this year who take part in adjustment program. First payment made in september.'t
“Wheat Plan Brings Cash to Farmers,” The Western News (Libby, MT) June 29, 1933.

“Triple-A Plowed Under,” (sometimes reported with the variant spellings of “Triple-A Ploughed Under” or “AAA Plowed Under”) was the first Living Newspaper that opened in New York on March 14, 1936. This paper showed scenes on the implementation of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 and the farming crisis.

The mixed results that followed the 1933 act came to a point in this January 6, 1936 headline. The opening of the show was just as eventful as the events documented on stage with “one arrested, two evicted” as reported in the Evening Star (D.C.).

Two newspaper photos of scenes from the play "Triple-A Plowed Under".
Scenes from “Triple-A Plowed Under.” “W.P.A. News theater Strikes Broadway,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) March 15, 1936.

The Living Newspaper titled “Events of 1935” (also simply titled “1935”) opened on May 6, 1936 and documented a survey of national events. Each scene serves as a headline, featuring the Hauptmann Case (which had just reached a verdict in the spring of 1936) and whether or not the USA would participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The top half of the front page of the March 31, 1936 Bismarck Tribune of North Dakota with the headline 'Hauptmann doomed to follow lindbergh baby into oblivion.' Includes three photos: one of the Lindbergh baby sitting in a chair and two of Hauptmann, chest up, facing front.
Front Page of the Bismark Tribune (Bismark, North Dakota) March 31, 1936.
“Mahoney, President of A.A.U., Presents Case for U.S. Olympic Withdrawal,” The Waterbury Democrat (Waterbury, CT) August 30, 1935.

While the Living Newspaper Headquarters in New York wrote the plays for distribution to all of the regional Federal Theatre groups, local FTPs also wrote their own Living Newspapers. One of the playbills included in the FTP digital collection is for a play performed in Cleveland, Ohio and is simply titled “The Living Newspaper: a dramatization of world news events.”

Front page of a playbill that reads 'Cleveland Repository Theatre presents the Living Newspaper a dramatization of world news events.'
Cover of playbill from Cleveland, Ohio. Music Division.

The scene list in the playbill shows the headlines that were most relevant to the local audience: “Silicosis at Gauley Bridge,” “Al Smith-Senator Robinson Speeches,” and “Cooper Hewitt Sterilization Case.” These headlines may not make into the history classes, but they were important enough at the time to bring a community together for both entertainment and a sense of civic unity.

Accusations of censorship, propaganda, and un-American activities always followed the Living Newspaper productions, and it is debated whether or not the Living Newspaper unit specifically played a role in ending the entire FTP in 1939. “Thus,” an article in the Indianapolis Times says, “the Living Newspaper has traveled the same rough road as the printed one.” Funding for the project was not renewed in the 1940 relief bill.

Newspaper article titled 'federal theater projects killed'.
“Federal Theater Projects Killed,” Imperial Valley Press (El Centro, CA) June 30, 1939.





The Living Newspapers were an interesting facet of the Federal Theatre Project and hold interest for scholars of history, politics, and theatre.

To explore more about the Living Newspapers, you can get the news in Chronicling America* and the scripts in the Library’s General Collection or the Music Division.

Discover More!

Hallie Flanagan, the National Director of the Federal Theatre Project, wrote a biography of the project titled Arena: the history of the Federal Theatre.

Four scripts of Living Newspaper plays are published with notes and bibliographies in this volume: Liberty Deferred and Other Living Newspapers of the 1930s. edited by Lorraine Brown, Tamara Liller and Barbara Jones Smith. Introduction by Stuart Cosgrove. George Mason University Press, 1989.

The Federal Theatre Project collection is housed in the Library’s Music Division. Digitized portions of the collection can be viewed online at the Library website.

The Teaching with the Library of Congress blog has a post about using Living Newspapers in the classroom.

*The Chronicling America online collection of historic newspapers is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program that is jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Pro-tip: When searching in Chronicling America, be sure to try both the spellings “theatre” and “theater” in order to get the most thorough results.

Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC and click here to subscribe to Headlines & Heroes so you never miss the news.

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