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Theater for the People: transcribing the Federal Theatre Project

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The Music Division is proud to announce the launch of its first collaboration with By the People, a crowd-source transcription initiative from the Library of Congress. Today marks the start of Theater for the People: Federal Theatre Project playbills, a campaign to transcribe more than 7,750 pages of theater programs and fliers documenting productions from the Federal Theatre Project.

Printed flier on seafoam green paper.
Flier for Spanish language version of It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, 1935-1939. Federal Theatre Project collection, Music Division.

Begun in 1935, the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was one of four arts-related programs administered by the Works Progress Administration. Headed by producer, director, and playwright Hallie Flanagan, the FTP created opportunities for more than 11,000 actors, dancers, directors, musicians, playwrights, stage designers, and technicians left unemployed during the Great Depression. The FTP presented a wide range of old and new shows including full-length dramas, musicals, and dance works. Circus performances, puppetry, and vaudeville sketches were also part of the FTP repertoire. New forms emerged such as the living newspaper, which dramatized stories taken directly from current headlines. An estimated 16 million people in over 30 states attended FTP productions before the program ended in 1939.

By the People was launched in the fall of 2018. To date, the site has made available more than 681,000 pages for transcription across 27 different campaigns. Some 427,000 pages have been transcribed, and more than 63,400 transcriptions have been linked to the Library’s online catalog, making those digital images both keyword-searchable and readable by accessibility technologies. The site has 28,000 registered accounts representing thousands of transcribers who volunteer their time to make the Library’s digital collections more accessible. However, you don’t need a registered account to engage with a campaign. Anyone with Internet access can visit By the People and transcribe a page from the Library’s collections at anytime from anywhere in the world. Visit the site to learn how!

Printed program with cast information and assoicated articles
Program for …One-third of a Nation, a living newspaper about housing, 1935-1939. Federal Theatre Project collection, Music Division.

The Theater for the People campaign consists of 2,076 programs and fliers previously captured as part of the Federal Theatre Project digital collection. These documents total 7,756 pages and are divided into seven geographic areas: New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, the South, the West, Los Angeles, CA, and New York City, NY. Volunteers can explore the FTP offerings of any region.

Standard cover of FTP program, blue text on white background
Program from One Act Plays of the Sea by Eugene O’Neill performed by the Negro Theatre Unit, 1935-1939. Federal Theatre Project collection, Music Division.

After all the pages are transcribed and reviewed, the information will be transferred back into the Library’s catalog and made immediately discoverable.  Researchers will be able to dig into any number of questions including investigating the early careers of luminaries like choreographer Katherine Dunham, actor and former boxer Canada Lee, and director Orson Welles. Admission prices and advertisements for local businesses will provide insight into commerce during a time of wide-spread economic depression, and broader questions about themes and trends in performance during this time can be more deeply considered. The potential for new scholarship is exciting, but the collection can also be used to connect people to their own family’s past. Have you heard about an ancestor or relative who performed with the FTP?  Well, with these new transcriptions, you may be able to find that name. Transcribing these programs and fliers builds a path to the past where we can discover who we were and help us better understand who we might become.

Sound exciting?! Head over the campaign page and start transcribing!

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