The Great Depression was as hard on actors as it was on everyone else. Maybe harder. Performers normally suffer from unemployment more than other sorts of workers; throw in an economic downturn, and you've got a seriously strapped profession.
In August of 1935, six years into the Depression and two into President Franklin Roosevelt's administration, the Works Progress Administration — which had already employed millions through public works projects — finally reached out to the suffering actor. It did so via the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the largest arts initiative attempted by the U.S. government.
Though the attention was welcome, FTP chief Hallie Flanagan and Actors' Equity Association didn't always get along. The groups shared a mutual respect, but Equity was used to dictating the terms under which its members could be employed. Along with the other unions, it objected to the lower salaries: $23.86 a week, compared to the minimum of $40. FTP, meanwhile, was a law unto itself, and argued that austere times called for drastic measures.
Still, for the most part, Equity tried to cooperate with Flanagan when it could. And you couldn't argue with the breadth of her success. As a result of her bold initiatives, the U.S. government became the largest theatrical producer in the world, bringing 2,000 productions to 25 million people in 31 states. Arguably the most famous of those productions was The Cradle Will Rock, the controversial pro-union opera by Marc Blitzstein. Under pressure from a disapproving Congress, who considered the FTP nothing but state-sponsored socialism, Flanagan shut down the scheduled opening. In defiance, managing producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles marched the entire cast and crew uptown to the Venice Theatre at 59th Street — and a media circus ensued.
The move put Equity in a tight spot. The union told Houseman that the show belonged to the FTP and could only be performed under its authority. Now a commercial venture, Cradle faced the irony of being a show about union empowerment that was being blocked by the unions. As a way around the tangle of prohibitions, the actors performed their roles, sans makeup and costumes, not on stage but from the audience — in the auditorium. Equity may have been hemmed on that historic occasion, but its members carried the day.
(This feature appears in the August 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)