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Asking Students to Re-Imagine a Living Newspaper Play with Playbills from the Federal Theatre Project

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In the May 2019 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article discusses the Federal Theatre Project, a WPA project intended to provide work for talented, out of work actors and playwrights, while at the same time re-kindling a robust theater program, not only in the large cities, but also in towns across the nation.  The article focuses on one play, One Third of a Nation, a Living Newspaper production. Living Newspaper productions addressed social issues of the day, typically presenting factual information in mostly fictionalized ways to audiences. These productions were written with the intention that they could be adapted to reflect the performance location by inserting, for example, local place names.

One Third of a Nation. Philadelphia, PA, October 17, 1938.

Drawing its title from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s January 20, 1937, Second Inaugural Address: “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” One Third of a Nation, written by Arthur Arent with input from out of work newspaper reporters, and produced by the FTP in 1938, addressed the slum housing crisis.

The article suggests a series of classroom strategies and approaches. First introduce a  playbill for One Third of a Nation. Allow time for students to share details of what they notice and to discuss what they wonder about the item.

Introduce the second playbill and again allow time for students to observe the item, reflect on what they’re seeing, and ask questions. To support students and deepen engagement, present the cartoon featured on the playbill first and focus students’ attention on the action and labels depicted. Distribute the copies of the full playbill and assign students to read either the whole sheet or select articles and jigsaw what they learn. Allow time for students to share what they discovered about the play, as well as what questions they have from studying the articles on the playbill. Pause and ask students to compare this playbill to the first one they examined.

One Third of a Nation. Philadelphia, PA, October 1938. Image 1

One Third of a Nation. Philadelphia, PA, October 1938. Image 2

On the second sheet of the second playbill, ask students what they notice about the list of characters. If needed, focus attention on either the section “Land” or “The City Grows” in Act I. Most will probably notice that some characters are named, such as William Penn and John Jacob Astor, but many are described, such as “mother,” “policeman,” and “tenants.” Ask students why they think the playwright, Arent, made those choices. Next provide time and resources for them to research named characters, first to determine which were real people, and then to learn a bit about those historical figures. Invite students to reflect on how learning about the people on whom the characters were based expanded their understanding of the possible action of the play.

Finally, tell students that One Third of a Nation was performed in several cities, and the collection includes many more items related to those performances, such as additional playbills, posters, photographs, and sketches for costumes. Encourage students to explore those items. Let us know what they discover!

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