In 1974 George Mason University faculty members Lorraine Brown and John O’Connor discovered the archives of the Federal Theater Project (FTP) in an aircraft hangar near Baltimore, Maryland after a lengthy search. Included were scripts for over 800 plays and radio programs, official FTP photographs, 1930s-era silk-screened posters, hand drawn set and costume designs, and other materials, which shed light on the history of the FTP. Thanks to this discovery, George Mason University would become the preeminent institution of higher learning for promoting and facilitating scholarship on the FTP for the next thirty-five years.
The FTP began in 1935 as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, employing several thousand actors, directors, playwrights, producers and others in the entertainment industry during the Great Depression. During its four-year run the FTP produced plays, musicals, radio programs and marionette shows and featured the early works of actors and producers such as Orson Welles, Arthur Miller, and Elia Kazan. The federal government discontinued the program in 1939, and thousands of scripts, photographs, posters, and other FTP records were dispersed between the National Archives, the Library of Congress, public libraries, and educational institutions. For over twenty-five years the main body of these records lay forgotten in a government-owned storage facility.
After Brown and O’Connor’s discovery, and realizing the historical significance of these records, George Mason University entered into negotiations with the Library of Congress to house and care for the collection. Many of the materials were physically deteriorating after so many years in less-than-ideal conditions. An agreement was reached, and the collection went on loan to George Mason University Libraries, with the aim that the collection would be used by scholars of the FTP and WPA. A center for the study of the FTP called The Institute for the Federal Theatre Project was established at Mason, and a staff of archives and library professionals were hired to manage the records in Fenwick Library.
The collection remained at Mason for nearly twenty years, and the University Libraries continued to both build on this collection and preserve its fragile materials through conducting oral history interviews of former FTP personnel, acquisition of their personal papers, and photo duplication and digitization of deteriorating records inside the collection, such as original posters, set, and costume design drawings.
In 1993, the Library of Congress began recalling materials that it had loaned to libraries across the country over the years, including the archives of the FTP. It suggested that the archive would be more accessible at the Library’s Music Division in Washington, D.C. rather than in Fairfax. While the bulk of the original loaned collection was eventually returned to the Library in August of 1994, George Mason University Libraries was allowed to retain duplicates of many of the records to complement the additional materials it had independently acquired between 1975 and 1994.
While the majority of the FTP records left the University Libraries, their original loan necessitated the creation of a unit within the Libraries to preserve, care for, and create access to them. Today that unit is known as the Special Collections Research Center.
There are many other pieces in SCRC’s “Showing Us Our Own Face” exhibit which deal with theater and the other performing arts. They demonstrate that the performing arts can challenge our views of society and reflect a broad spectrum of the human experience.
“Showing Us Our Own Face”: Performing Arts and the Human Experience will be on display until May 2020 in Fenwick Library, 2FL.
Follow SCRC on Social Media and look out for future posts in our Travel Series on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. To search the collections held at Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.