Suzanne Walker has been in our reading room diligently working with the Federal Theatre Project collections for the last three weeks. Suzanne was kind enough to allow me to interview her about her project. This is the first in what will become a frequent series of profiles with some of our researchers.
Please tell us a little about yourself:
I am twenty-one years old and go to school at Barnard College. I am majoring
in American Studies, concentrating in media and popular culture 1900-1945.
Can you describe your research project?
My research project centers on the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which operated from 1935-1939 under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration, and remains the only instance in the United States’ history of a federally funded andoperated theatre. This project will culminate in the writing of my senior thesis for the American Studies major at Barnard. Ever since I learned of the Federal Theatre Project’s existence, I’ve been fascinated by the possibilities and contradictions inherent in the creation of a national theatre. As I learned more about the history of the FTP, I became particularly interested in the relationship between director Hallie Flanagan’s artistic goals and the day-to-day operations of the small regional theatres. As national director of the Federal Theatre Project, Flanagan harbored ambitious goals both to provide relief to unemployed actors and to create a uniquely “American” theatre relevant to its audience. Flanagan’s definition of an “American” theatre relied on the development of homegrown, local theatres with distinctly regional characters, and my thesis explores to what extent her vision was actually carried out. By focusing on the relationship among
Flanagan, her administration, and the numerous regional directors scattered across the country, I hope to demonstrate that Flanagan’s vision of what constituted American theatre could not always be universally applied, and that artistic minds across the country were forced to modify her vision for political, artistic, and economic purposes.
How did you find the collections here at George Mason University’s archives?
Nearly all the bibliographies in books about the Federal Theatre Project reference the playscript and Oral History collections at SC&A, so it seemed like a good place to come to!
How did you learn about primary source research?
My first real experience conducting primary source research was when I worked as a research assistant last summer. One of the archivists showed me how to search for particular sources with the online catalogue, and very patiently showed me how to use the microfilm machine. From there it was a lot of diving in and learning through my own trial and error.
Do you have any advice on primary source research for other undergraduate students or first-time researchers?
Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find what you’re looking for right away—sometimes you’ll find something you were looking for days ago in a place where you least expected it. Also, don’t necessarily start off with a specific idea or thesis. The deeper you get into research the more you will realize that your preconceived notions are never quite in line with how things actually played out. Start out with a very broad idea of what you’re looking for—the documents will speak for themselves.
What are your impressions of George Mason University? The archives? The DC area?
All three seem absolutely lovely! I’ve been quite impressed with the GMU campus/facilities, and everyone at the archives has been incredibly friendly and helpful. I still haven’t done much in the DC area other than touristy history stuff, but I’m excited to keep exploring!