Broadway Working Conditions


The 1930s were a time of economic struggle throughout America and the rest of the world. The difficulty in finding work encompassed all professions including those in the theatre. Just as today, making a living in the theatre was a challenge and actors faced great difficulty as they sought stardom on Broadway. In addition to the struggle of finding work as an actor, women also faced the challenge of finding work during the revival of the ideal of “True Womanhood”. This ideal stressed women’s domestic virtues and encouraged women to give up their jobs in favor of being supportive and doing charity work. Under the guidelines of “True Womanhood”, actresses were left in an interesting place. On one hand, they were looked down upon for working. On the other hand, however, the fame some of them achieved allowed them to create successful charities.


The Federal Theatre Project was an aspect of the Works Progress Administration designed to help unemployed members of the artistic community find work again. It was the first and only time in American history that the government sponsored the creation of new plays – some of which had themes that were considered radical at the time. Because the main purpose of the Works Progress Administration was to create jobs for those most in need, the Federal Theatre Project ran into conflicts. Hiring those with the greatest need was not a guarantee of good theatre. This idea is of particular interest in Stage Door because of characters like Kendall Adams. Kendall is a society girl with no need of financial relief, yet she is one of the most successful actors in the Footlights Club. Under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theatre Project was devoted not only to providing financial relief, but also to the creation of great theatrical art in America. The Federal Theatre Project had its successes and its failures, but after four years it was cancelled by the government in fear of communist influence.


As the director of the Federal Theatre Project, Hallie Flanagan was passionate and driven to make the project successful. Having traveled in Europe, Flanagan was inspired by the theatre she had seen abroad and wished to cultivate a similar standard of excellence in the United States. She was ambitious and strove for excellence across the nation, even when others scoffed at her ambitions. Flanagan wanted to see quality theatre nationwide, as opposed to only in Broadway or New York. Flanagan was a remarkable woman in charge of a major government project, at a time when most women did not hold positions of power.


Created in 1913, the Actor’s Equity Association was a union which fought for the rights of performers. It functioned much as any other union, starting off with basic safety requests for the sake of the performers and moving up to more specific, particular requests. The Actor’s Equity Association also led indirectly the creation of the Screen Actor’s Guild, which was created by members of the Actor’s Equity Association working in Hollywood. Unions were a common collective bargaining tool in the 1930s and helped to secure fair wages for theatrical artists. By the time of Stage Door, Actor’s Equity was two decades old and fairly well established. It is fairly likely that many of the girls in the Footlights Club were members of the Actor’s Equity Association, as Little Mary mentions “There ought to be an Equity law…” (Ferber 24).


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Photos Courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection.)

These two pages from the Instructions for the Federal Theatre Project list the different types of workers in the theatre and how they are classified. In order for anyone to work with the Federal Theatre Project, they needed to fill out paperwork attesting to their classification among these categories, as well as prove that they needed government relief. Actors of secondary parts (like the majority of the girls in the Footlights Club) were considered Skilled Laborers, while actors of leading parts (such as Terry by the end of the show) and musicians (like Olga) were both considered Professionals.


Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection.)

The above image comes from the Production Notes of Orson Welles’ production of Macbeth. The top half of the image provides information to the Federal Theatre Project about which kinds of rehearsals and performances are happening and what times. The bottom half of the note is particularly relevant to Stage Door, however the interdepartmental memorandum deals with the firing of actors from a show, similar to Terry when the Berger production in Act I closes. The memorandum informs the department that three actors from a specific show will be let go from the Classics Program of the Federal Theatre Project, whereas the other actors in the play were recast in other shows.


Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection.)

The above photograph comes from the Production Notebook for the Arthur Arent play Power. While the actresses in Stage Door would not have seen these notices, they are all too aware of their effect. Even in times of economic struggle, the theatre strives for excellence. Although the Federal Theatre Project aimed to help those theatre practitioners, who most needed government aid, they also wished to create successful plays. Sometimes this involved casting someone who had less need of the financial help, but was a better fit for a specific part.


Baar, K. Kevyne. “What Has My Union Done For Me?.” Film History 20.4 (2008): 437-455. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.

Dickstein, Morris. “Facing The Music: What 1930S Pop Culture Can Teach Us About Our Own Hard Times.”American Scholar 78.4 (2009): 91-95. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.

Ferber, Edna and Kaufman, George S. Stage Door. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1963. Print.

“Flanagan’s Drama.” Time 36.26 (1940): 64. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.

Gordon, Kelly Carolyn. “Class Act(Resses).” Theatre History Studies 31.(2011): 3-8. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.

Witham, Barry B. The Federal Theatre Project. Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2003. Print.