Excerpt: Staged News: The Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspapers in New York by Jordana Cox

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Jordana Cox’s book Staged News: The Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspapers in New York (University of Massachusetts, 2023). Authors who would like to promote their books of or about literary journalism in the newsletter can email us at literaryjournalismsubmissions [at] gmail.com.

Not many people can say that a job in theater is their professional safety net, but journalist Morris Watson could. Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1901, Watson started reporting when he was just twenty-two, beginning at the Omaha World Herald before moving on to the Denver Post, the Chicago Herald, and then the Chicago Examiner. He went on to work for the Associated Press, first in Chicago and then in New York. He was in his own words “a newspaperman” through and through. Watson was also, however, an active labor organizer, and in 1935, one year after he became vice president of the newly formed American Newspaper Guild, he was fired from his job at the AP. Suddenly jobless in the depths of the Great Depression, Watson, like many Americans, turned to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, a stimulus and relief program.

Among the WPA’s many infrastructural and cultural initiatives was the Federal Theatre Project. Under the FTP’s auspices, Watson would join nearly thirteen thousand Americans across the country who earned their paychecks by making free or low-cost theater. Watson’s assignment, however, was unique. He was appointed the managing producer of the New York Living Newspaper unit. A team of journalists and theater-makers supported by a range of other craftspeople and professionals, the NYLN identified issues that urgently affected Americans, from affordable housing to public utilities. They sourced statistics, quotes, and legislative excerpts, and brought their reporting to the stage in sweeping dramatic narratives. In the Manhattan offices of the NYLN, Watson had found his way back to the newsroom, but in service to a very different kind of news.

The NYLN was short-lived but significant. Between 1935 and 1939, the NYLN would create six Living Newspaper productions: Ethiopia (staged for a small invited audience, 1936); The Events of 1935 (Biltmore Theatre, 1936); Injunction Granted! (Biltmore Theatre, 1936); Triple-A Plowed Under (Biltmore Theatre, 1936), Power (Ritz Theatre, 1937), and One-Third of a Nation (Adelphi Theatre, 1938). The NYLN was the Federal Theatre Project’s most prolific producer of Living Newspapers; in fact, it was the only unit dedicated entirely to the form. And while its productions garnered large audiences, and in some cases critical praise, they also drew suspicions of propaganda, especially from Roosevelt’s more conservative critics. Within a few years, the Dies Committee in the US Congress, a precursor to the House Un-American Activities Committee, was holding hearings with FTP staff, whom it accused of disseminating communist propaganda both onstage and behind the scenes. When the Dies Committee formed in 1938, the NYLN was staging its most popular production, One-Third of a Nation, which ran for ten months, drew over 200,000 spectators in New York, and inspired adaptations in Cincinnati, Detroit, Hartford, Washington, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Portland, and Seattle. On June 30, 1939, Congress dismantled the FTP, and with it the NYLN. A new Living Newspaper about health care was in development, but without the infrastructure of the WPA, it would close after only a short commercial run the following year.

Nearly a century after the FTP ended, a small cohort of artists have continued to explore the Living Newspaper form. In doing so, many invite their audiences to consider what was lost. Chicago’s Jackalope Theatre, for example, has described its annual Living Newspaper Festival as an “homage.” The Metropolitan Theatre in New York presented a Living Newspaper triptych in “jubilant celebration of these social dramas created by the WPA.” London’s Royal Court Theatre advertised its “living newspapers for our times” in bold red typography, evoking Red Decade design.[i] These contemporary living newspapers are much more than tributes; they have reimagined, and at times critiqued, their antecedents. Yet they are also tinged with nostalgia, all asking, in some way, how artists and producers might re-create the conditions in which Living Newspapers thrived.

Though indebted to the energy and intellect behind these and other contemporary adaptations, this book aims neither to rehabilitate the NYLN’s work nor to lament its loss.[ii] Instead it seeks to recuperate and continue an inquiry that has been sidelined in Living Newspaper historiography: a sustained series of efforts to reimagine the news. The phrase “staged news” attempts to capture this goal. In the most literal sense, it describes what happened when journalists worked for the FTP; in a more conceptual sense, it offers an optic for seeing how news-makers artfully assemble observations, sensations, and narrative for public witnessing.

My argument is that in making news for the stage, the New York Living Newspaper sought not only to relay current events, but also to draw attention to the ideas and techniques that mainstream newspapers used to elicit Americans’ care and attention. In doing so, Living Newspapers cultivated journalistic imagination, a capacity to perceive, reflect on, and revise the processes through which people and issues are deemed newsworthy. Living Newspapers cast a spotlight on norms that were coalescing in print journalism and offered a compelling—though imperfect—alternative.[iii]

This alternative was collaborative, self-conscious, and dynamic. Living Newspapers espoused a commitment to rigorous truth-telling while experimenting with who news was for and what it could do. Living Newspapers, however, were neither universal nor transcendent; journalistic imagination is shaped by social, cultural, and material conditions. Most significantly, perhaps, the NYLN reflected the expansive coalitions of the Popular Front and also its systematic inattention to race and racism. Living Newspapers reimagined news, but they would reiterate what the African American scholar Richard Iton calls “the solidarity blues.”[iv]

This book’s central claim, that Living Newspapers were in fact a form of news, might sound too obvious to need saying. The word, after all, is in the name. Yet Living Newspapers are strikingly absent from histories of journalism.[v]One reason for this might be that the history of journalism as an academic field in the United States is relatively new. The historian John Nerone dates it to the early twentieth century, and the self-proclaimed “oldest peer-reviewed journal of mass media history in the United States” dates back only to 1974.[vi]

Even setting aside the relative newness of journalism history, however, Living Newspapers make for an unusual case study. They resist powerful journalistic norms or, more specifically, distinctions: between objectivity and bias, bearing witness and taking action, propaganda and democratic communication, public interest and exclusion. Moreover, they are works of theater—an unconventional medium for scholars who usually attend to mass media and material archives, and a cultural discourse that bears embarrassing associations with manipulation, trickery, and deceit.[vii]

All of these possibilities, however, are speculative. And none of them explain why, just as journalism historians have tended to ignore Living Newspapers, theater historians have tended to sideline the journalists who helped create them. Perhaps lurking behind the mutual hesitation is uncertainty about what theater and journalism might actually have to offer each other, whether in the past or in the future. To characterize the problem in broad strokes, journalism is supposed to be lean, accurate, informative, while theater is—reputedly—excessive, deceptive, and distracting. The tension resonates in the words “Living Newspaper,” albeit with slightly different connotations. The “living,” as that which is animate, messy, and in the flesh, implies that the newspaper is at best dull—and at worst, dead.

Together, however, the words are hopeful. Perhaps, “living newspaper” suggests, the theater and the newspaper might supplement and transform each other. At the NYLN, the suggestion was often just that: a glimmer of possibility in an often clunky repertoire and its polarizing politics. (“Are they any good?” a professor asked incredulously when I proposed studying Living Newspapers in graduate school.) Less concerned, however, with artistic assessments than with cultural history, this book argues that the possibility of mutual transformation was foundational to the form.

Consider an article Watson penned for the leftist New Theatre Review after less than a year at the Unit’s helm.[viii]Trying to articulate what, exactly, he and his staff were up to, he titled it simply “The Living Newspaper.” The article was tentative but full of excitement. Watson explained how the NYLN came about and described a recent production. As the article neared its conclusion, he attempted to summarize the Living Newspaper as a whole: “A literally rough estimate of it at the moment would be: ‘Combine the newspaper and the theatre and to hell with the traditions of both.’”[ix] Watson’s terse imperative, a call to “combine the newspaper and the theatre,” implied a novel experiment. His rejection of what came before—“to hell with the traditions of both”!—invoked a daring avant-garde. Though Watson’s description was, by his own account, a “rough estimate,” the work he described was undeniably ambitious. It implied nothing less than a radical inquiry in journalistic practice.

Staged News aims to excavate this inquiry, and in doing so, to explain how the NYLN conceived the work of news-making at a moment when news-making was in profound transition. In this chapter I introduce two seemingly disparate histories: the first is about how the newspaper was contested and defined in the interwar United States; the second is about how conventions of theatrical reporting moved across Revolutionary Russia, the Weimar Republic, and the United States in the 1920s. After tracing these two histories, I offer a way to see and interpret their connections, theorizing what I call “journalistic imagination” in the NYLN’s repertoire.

Jordana Cox

Jordana Cox is assistant professor of communication arts at the University of Waterloo. Her book, from which this essay is excerpted, is titled Staged News: The Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspapers in New York.

[i] “The Living Newspapers Festival—The Artistic Home—Chicago,” Theatre in Chicago, accessed September 30, 2020, https://www.theatreinchicago.com/the-living-newspapers-festival/3900/; “Injunction Granted,” Metropolitan Playhouse, accessed June 4, 2015, http://metropolitanplayhouse.org/injunctiongranted; “Living Newspaper: A Counter Narrative,” Royal Court Theatre, accessed June 7, 2022, https://royalcourttheatre.com/home/livingnewspaper.

[ii] While this issue is not the focus of this book, I have benefited enormously from opportunities to witness Living Newspapers over the years: not only in the theater but also in a nightclub, in a museum, and of course in classrooms. In 2014, Jackalope Theatre’s then–artistic director AJ Ware brought the company’s annual Living Newspaper Festival to Northwestern University’s Block Museum. The performances, which featured Northwestern acting students, complemented John Murphy’s exhibition The Left Front: Radical Art in the Red Decade. That same year I attended Shelter/Chicago, a Living Newspaper presented by Chicago’s Living News Project, in conjunction with the Illinois Humanities Council. Columbia College lecturer Lisa DiFranza had collaborated with staff and residents at Cornerstone Community Outreach to create an original play about homelessness in Chicago. In 2018 I witnessed The Paper Machete, a weekly “live magazine” hosted at Chicago’s historic Green Mill nightclub.

[iii] I define mainstream newspapers as commercial, professional, politically conservative, and making use of syndicates and wire services. In doing so, I follow the historian David Welky, who writes: “Mainstream print culture consists of written material that has a national reach. It was distributed across the United States or, in the case of newspapers, assumed a national tone through the use of syndicates and wire services. It was a product of profit-driven corporations that wanted to appeal to the largest possible audience within a target demographic.” Mainstream newspapers, he notes, were decidedly apart from the leftist cultural front, though they sometimes made use of cultural front advocates and ideas. David Welky, Everything Was Better in America: Print Culture in the Great Depression (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 4.

[iv] Richard Iton, Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture, and the American Left (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

[v] Welky, Everything Was Better in America, 67.

[vi] John Nerone, “Does Journalism History Matter?” American Journalism 28, no. 4 (October 2011): 7–27; “About,” Journalism History, August 20, 2018.

[vii] Jonas A. Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

[viii] For a history of New Theatre Review and an analysis of its editorial positions, see Eleazer Lecky, “New Theatre,” Modern Drama, April 5, 2013.

[ix] Morris Watson, “The Living Newspaper,” New Theatre 3 (1936): 6.

Jordana Cox

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