The Federal Theatre Project: The Collection That Started It All

George Mason University faculty members (left to right) John O’Connor, Lorraine Brown, and Michael Sundell examine FTP materials in Fenwick Library, 1974. Broadside photograph collection, R0135 Box 9, Page 12
Special Collections Research Center

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.

Official FTP photographs from a 1937 Los Angeles production of Awake and Sing.
Federal Theatre Project photograph collection, C0205, Box 7, Folder 31
Special Collections Research Center

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.

FTP materials in original 1930s packing crates in Fenwick Library, 1974. Broadside photograph collection, R0135, Box 9, Page 12 Special Collections Research Center

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.

Original 1970s-era collection management tool. Cards such as this one were used by University Libraries staff to inventory the large number of materials in the FTP Collection by the title of the play with which they were associated.
Institute for the Federal Theatre Project records, R0021
Special Collections Research Center

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.

FTP designer, Sam Leve donated these original 1936 set design sketches for the FTP play Cherokee Night in the late 1970s. Federal Theatre Project personal papers, C0022, Box 28 Special Collections Research Center

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.

Cassette recording of an oral history interview of notable actor, director, and producer, John Houseman conducted May 11, 1976. Interviews like this one were conducted by George Mason University staff to supplement the FTP Collection. Works Progress Administration oral histories, C0153, Box 21 Special Collections Research Center

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.

35 mm color slide of original poster advertising the 1938 FTP production, Flight: A Living Newspaper Play. Photographic slides were made of all posters in the collection in the early 1980s so as to reduce light exposure and handling of the brittle originals. Institute for the Federal Theatre Project records, R0021
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 FacebookInstagram, 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 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.