I for one welcome our new insect leaders with open arms. As we celebrate our 1001st blog post (give or take a few), the Music Division also celebrates a major update to the Federal Theatre Project Collection, which features some of the most requested material in the division.
Much of the work for this update went on during the pandemic, as staff members spending limited time on site sorted through 1,409 batches of photographs organized by show or topic. Over a period of months, we went through a total of over 15,500 images, many of them archival prints in pristine condition that had not been examined in decades.
Among these images are production photos from Karel and Josef Čapek’s 1921 play The World We Live In, also known by the more descriptive title Pictures from the Insects’ Life. The play premiered in 1922, and these photographs come from a 1937 Federal Theatre Project production at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles. While there is no available caption for the image, we do know the production starred Patricia Craig as Iris Butterfly, Caroline Claire as Red Butterfly, Dolores Weir as Brown Butterfly, Psyche Nibert as White Butterfly and Araby Childs as Yellow Butterfly.
So what’s with the insects? And are they wearing food strainers for eyes?
While we can’t definitely answer the latter question, we can tell you that the Capeks’ play is an allegory of life in Czechoslovakia after the first World War, with the various insects, from worker to vain butterfly to dung beetle (enough said), representing a different aspect of human behavior.
In an unsigned review from 1937, The Los Angeles Times called this production “delightfully told.” Noting a general level of excellence from the company, the anonymous critic wrote that “the playing and production are all quite up to the best Federal standards, the costumes and mounting being colorful.”
Which insect are you?
We’ve also added 389 set designs to Federal Theatre Project Collections, including this rendering of a fictional amusement park from a production of the children’s classic Pinocchio. The park would be renamed Pleasure Island in the Walt Disney version of the tale.
The Federal Theatre Project Collection contains documentation for stage productions mounted by the Federal Theatre Project in the period 1935-39 and can be accessed by consulting the collection finding aid. This wide-reaching project was spurred by the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to provide work for unemployed theater professionals during the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of October 1929. This brief period in American cultural history featured the largest and most ambitious effort mounted by the Federal Government to organize and produce theater events, and you’ll see some familiar faces here, including Orson Welles , Joseph Cotten, and even Burt Lancaster, who before he became a Hollywood legend spent time as an acrobat in the Federal Theatre Project circus.
I served as project leader for the digitization of the photographs, and Karen Lund helped me sort through hundreds of boxes of materials. Thanks are also due to Morgan Cundiff, who worked on integrating the new metadata with the items already up, and Nguyen Nguyen who worked on the programming that corralled this sprawling online collection.