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The political power of theater

Theater is one of the oldest art forms. It’s a story unfolding in real time. A space to commune with others face-to-face. A theatrical performance is a singular experience. It can never be recreated even with the same play, the same cast, or the same audience. It embodies the saying, “You had to be there.” And when it’s done well, it stays with you for years.

Between 1935 and 1939, thirty million Americans had the chance to see a play thanks to Federal Theater Project. Two-thirds of these theatergoers had never seen a production. But the project was quickly destroyed by Congress’s Un-American Activities Committee.

Nearly a century later, the theater’s place in American life is shrinking. The percentage of Americans who saw just one nonmusical play once a year dropped from 10 percent to less than 5 percent between 2017 and 2022. That’s according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Today, we look back on this one-of-kind federal project that believed in the power of theater, and we look forward to the role theater might play in upholding democracy even as the arts in America are being undermined.

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Haili Blassingame