Hallie Flanagan (1889-1969) was born to Fred and Louisa Fischer Ferguson on August 27, 1889, in South Dakota. She was not yet four years old when the United States fell into an economic depression. Her father’s search for work moved her family around the Midwest for much of her childhood. Finally, in 1900, her father found a job selling telephone switchboards and the Fergusons settled in Grinnell, Iowa. Hallie’s father was reputed to be a charming and sociable man who was prone to fantasy and encouraged Hallie to be adventurous. Her mother was a devoted housewife whom Hallie revered, though she felt much more of a kinship with her father’s dramatic nature and was aware of her own lack of domestic abilities. In fact, her stepdaughter quoted Hallie as saying that “dailiness,” or the unchanging cooking, cleaning and mothering of domestic life “was the hardest thing for her to bear.”
When Hallie was a teenager the Colonial Theatre was built in Grinnell and Hallie immediately fell in love with the dramatic arts. Her father began to organize home talent shows for which Hallie wrote and directed her own scripts. In 1907 Hallie began her studies at Grinnell College. College President John Main developed the school to foster values of social service. Hallie was deeply influenced by Main and the philosophy of the college. In a speech to her fellow students she said, “A college woman who goes out into the world having gained only knowledge, with no love for humanity, has failed.” While at Grinnell, Hallie wrote short stories, was elected class poet, and was a member of the Dramatic Club.
Grinnell College is also where Hallie met her first husband, Murray Flanagan. Murray was a standout in academics and athletics at school. He moved in as a tenant to a room in the Fergusons’ house, so he and Hallie were able to spend all their time together. Murray eventually proposed to Hallie and wanted to get married immediately after her graduation, but she decided to postpone marriage and spend a year teaching English at a local high school. She discovered both a love and an aptitude for teaching. When she finally married Murray, however, she did not discover a natural inclination for domestic life. This became a source of conflict between Hallie and Murray, and their marriage endured serious strains as a result. Things became especially difficult for Hallie after her first son, Jack, was born. She began to feel jealous and resentful of her husband’s career in the insurance field, seeing his life as more challenging and fulfilling than her own. Around the time Hallie had her second son Frederic, Murray came down with the flu which developed into tuberculosis, and he died. His death was devastating to Hallie, but it set her life on a new path.
Hallie began teaching high school English again in order to support her two children, and eventually she landed a position teaching freshman English at her alma mater.  Around this time a chapter of the Drama League of America was established in Grinnell, and Hallie began to attend meetings and write plays. In 1922 Hallie had her first major production at the Colonial Theatre in Grinnell: a play she wrote and directed, The Garden of Wishes. That same year, her older son Jack died tragically of meningitis.
Though heartbroken over the loss of her son, Hallie slowly began to make a name for herself in the theatre community. She took over the Theatre Program at Grinnell College, and began to travel regularly to study under various theatre artists. Most notable was a Harvard/Radcliffe workshop given by George Pierce Baker, to whom Hallie attributed much of her theatre knowledge. Pierce was equally impressed by Hallie, and made her his assistant during her time at Harvard. Hallie took Pierce’s passion back to Grinnell with her, and brought the Theatre Department to a new level of excellence. From there she accepted a position teaching in the Theatre Department at Vassar College. She took a sabbatical almost immediately, however, because in 1926 she was awarded one of the first Guggenheim Fellowships to study theatre in Europe for a year. This would be one of the most influential experiences of her life.
While in Europe, Hallie was able to see the work of theatre artists she had admired as a student, such as the Abbey Players in Ireland and plays by Ibsen in Norway. However, she found that most European countries seemed to have stopped creating what she considered exciting and innovative work. The one place where Hallie did find inspiration was Russia, where theatre had been developed by the lower classes and was politically charged and experimental. While visiting Russia, Hallie was able to meet the famous Konstantin Stanislavsky and spent an evening interviewing him after seeing one of his productions. While she was impressed by Stanislavsky, it was Vsevolod Meyerhold who really captured Hallie’s heart with his inventive and revolutionary directing style. Hallie returned to America intending to use what she had learned to create new work that would be fresh and also deeply American.
Once back at Vassar, Hallie established the Vassar Experimental Theatre. She directed Chekov’s The Marriage Proposal in a three-part production where the audience was able to see the play performed in three different styles. First the play was done realistically, second in the style of Abstract Expressionism, and last in the style of Meyerhold’s constructivist ideas. This was the first American production to utilize Meyerhold’s Constructivist technique, and it gained attention beyond the education community, including a positive review in The New York Times Magazine. While Hallie was gaining respect as a director in American theatre, she was also gaining a reputation for producing plays with a socialist message, such as a play called Blocks, written by Hallie’s student Molly Day Thacher (who would later marry Elia Kazan). There were complaints about Hallie’s casual and somewhat revolutionary style. Her students called her by her first name, and she wore jeans to school instead of skirts like the other girls at Vassar. Hallie did not approach theatre studies academically, but instead focused on teaching her students to be artists.
Hallie’s home life while at Vassar provided some major benefits. She lived in a faculty residence with other professors, which allowed her to do her work with minimal domestic responsibility. This communal life also helped with bringing up her son Frederic and allowed her to go away without him on weekends to see theatre and visit friends. During this time, in 1928, she published her first book, Shifting Scenes, which recounted her time in Europe, and was well received.
In 1930 Hallie was asked by Vassar President Henry MacCracken to cast a fellow professor in a play. Philip Davis taught Greek at Vassar, and had recently lost his wife. His drinking had become a concern, and MacCracken wanted to give him a distraction. Hallie and Philip began to exchange letters and eventually became close, but Hallie was not interested in marrying again. She believed that she did not have anything to offer in a domestic family situation, so she kept Philip at bay and continued to focus on her work. At Vassar she began to produce plays that she hoped would bring attention to the plight of the farmers during the growing Depression, and many considered her work to be increasingly radical and communistic, although it garnered much critical praise.
Hallie decided to produce Hippolytus, and she had Philip Davis train her students in ancient Greek so that they could perform the play in its original language. During the Hippolytus rehearsal process, Hallie and Philip’s relationship finally became romantic, although Philip was eleven years younger than Hallie. In 1933 they were married while both on sabbatical, and honeymooned in Delos where Philip was doing research on ancient Greek ruins. It was a deeply intimate and romantic time for the couple. When Hallie and Philip returned to Vassar they moved into a new house together, and Hallie resumed her work pushing the boundaries of the Vassar Theatre Department. She now had a husband, three stepchildren, and her own son Frederic, who had been expelled from his boarding school and had returned to live with them. Frederic struggled with his mother’s absences, and was troublesome in school.
Hallie’s next occupation, however, increased her time away from her family. In 1935 the US Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. A major force behind the Roosevelt administration’s initiatives was Harry Hopkins, with whom Hallie had been friends at Grinnell College. Having heard of Hallie’s strong reputation at Vassar, Hopkins approached her about the position of Director of the Federal Theatre Project under the Works Progress Administration, a project that was particularly supported by Eleanor Roosevelt. Initially Hallie resisted the position because of social pressure to stay at home with her husband and children. The job would mean living in Washington DC part time. But Philip insisted, and Hallie later remembered his saying, “You know, darling, don’t you, that you will have to take that job. All the forces of your life have led you to it.” Along with her husband’s encouragement, Harry Hopkins wooed Hallie aggressively for the position. He believed she was ideal for the job because she did not come from a commercial theatre background, came from the Midwest, and would appreciate the need to get the theatre workers of Middle America back to work, as well as those in New York City. Hallie took the oath of office on August 27, 1935, her 46th birthday. She was the only woman appointed to direct a Federal Project.
Hallie determined that the Federal Theatre Project would consist of metropolitan theatre built by WPA labor in each region of the United States.  Resident theatre companies would produce new work and classical pieces that commercial theatres would consider too expensive. These productions would tour around their respective regions, both providing employment and bringing free theatre to all Americans. Hallie believed that this would lead to each region developing its own unique body of theatre, larger audiences for commercial theatres, and a new freedom of experimentation since profits would not be a concern.
Hallie proved to be an innovative and level-headed leader. In 1936 Federal Theatre produced its first “living newspaper,” an idea of Bureau Supervisor Francis Bosworth to dramatize current events. The show was It Can’t Happen Here, and it was based on an anti-fascist novel by Sinclair Lewis  Hallie believed the United States was entering what she called “an age of expanding social consciousness,” and she wanted Federal Theatre to encourage this. The Federal Theatre produced many living newspapers in all regions during its four years, most of which addressed the struggles of the working class, and were received with great critical acclaim.
Hallie’s theater project attracted international interest. Several countries, including Mexico, Norway, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, sent representatives to study its operations. Additionally, China, Sweden, Denmark, and British South Africa sent requests to produce Federal Theater’s plays, particularly the living newspapers. Hallie Flanagan achieved a level of prestige as a woman that was way ahead of her time, and many of the plays that she selected would go on to have commercial runs or become films.
The most famous production to come out of the Federal Theatre Project was Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock in 1937. Hallie described it as “not a play set to music, nor music illustrated by actors, but music plus play equaling something new and better than either.” This was six years before Oklahoma, which is commonly thought of as the first musical. Hallie appreciated the inventiveness and importance of the work, so she had the play produced by Jack Houseman and directed by Orson Welles in New York City. The play was aggressively pro-union and critical of financial and political corruption in the United States. Just before the play was to open, and after all the seats had been sold, a memorandum was received from Washington stating that “because of the [budget] cuts and reorganization” no new play could open at that time. Hallie was sure this was censorship, and she tried and failed to get an exception to the ruling. In response Jack Houseman and Orson Welles led the opening night audience on foot to a privately owned theatre, where the actors performed the play from the audience seating, so as not to break their union contracts or violate the memorandum. The event became a theatre legend.
The censorship of The Cradle Will Rock was a sign of the overall sentiment growing against Federal Theatre in Washington. In 1938 it was targeted by the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, chaired by Martin Dies. Federal Theatre was being labeled communist, and all of Hallie’s attempts to correspond with Dies went unanswered. Hallie was not called in to testify until December 6, five months into the investigation . One well-remembered focus of the investigation was a production called The Revolt of the Beavers, which was a children’s play about beavers revolting against a selfish beaver king. The committee members continued to demonstrate their lack of qualifications for judging artistic work. This exchange during Hallie’s testimony is the stuff of theater legend:
Congressman Starnes: You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?
[Room erupts with laughter]
Hallie Flanagan: I was quoting from Christopher Marlowe.
Congressman Starnes: Tell us who Marlowe is, so we can get the proper reference, because that is all we want to do.
Hallie Flanagan: Put in the record that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare.
The Dies committee officially declared the Federal Theatre to be communist, although no one on the committee ever saw a single one of its productions. In 1939 Congress voted to eliminate Federal Theatre. Reinforcing Hallie’s belief that the lawmakers did not truly understand what they had done was a phone call she received from a Congressman. He wanted to talk to her about developing Federal Theatre in his state:
Hallie Flanagan: But, Congressman, there is no Federal Theatre. You voted it out of existence.
Hallie Flanagan: It was abolished on June 30 by an act of Congress.
Congressman: Was that the Federal Theatre?
After Federal Theatre ended, Hallie received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to write a book about her experiences running the program, which she entitled Arena. This gave Hallie a wonderful opportunity as a woman to tell her own story and to influence the way her legacy was remembered.
Hallie went back to teaching at Vassar. Sadly, within a year of the Project ending, Hallie’s beloved husband Philip died of coronary thrombosis. Hallie expressed deep guilt about spending four years away from him while directing Federal Theatre, although Philip’s support of her efforts never faltered. She later began an intimate relationship with a man named Robert Schnitzer, but she never married again.
Guilt about having a career and being away from her family haunted Hallie throughout her life, and is a constant topic in her biography. She simply did not have access to the support necessary to have a career as well as a family. Her strained relationships with her child and stepchildren were evidence that her decision to go against social norms had its consequences. Her son Frederic continued to struggle into adulthood. He suffered with depression and drug abuse, and ended his own life six months before Hallie’s death, although she was never told.
Hallie took a position as Dean of Smith College in 1942. In 1948 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. About four years later she retired from Smith College and moved to Poughkeepsie. She spent much of her retirement writing, and died July 23, 1969. Two months later a memorial was held for her at Lincoln Center with over 300 people in attendance.
Hallie Flanagan’s accomplishments are admirable for a person of either gender, but her struggles were certainly uniquely female. She chose to pursue a career at a time when there was little support or respect for that choice, and she was not immune to the costs. Hallie’s accomplishments, however, are evidence that her choice to follow her passions had a positive impact on thousands of people. She left a valuable legacy, and was an intelligent and inspired leader in the international theatre community.
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Emily Quartarone. “Hallie Flanagan.” Project Continua (February 2, 2016): Ver. 1, [date accessed], http://www.projectcontinua.org/hallie-flanagan/