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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Hallie Flanagan ’11

Part of an ongoing series about the folks who inhabit this small campus in the middle of Iowa.

When I started this series, I had two primary intents: To write about people I regularly interact with, and to introduce students to past Grinnellians they really should know about. In the latter group, one of the first folks I planned to write about was Hallie Flanagan ’11. Why? Because I too frequently have the following conversation.

I’m involved in a play in the Flanagan theatre. You should come.

I’ll do my best. By the way, do you know about Hallie Flanagan, who the theatre is named afer?

The Flanagan theatre is named after someone?

Yes, the Flanagan theatre is named after someone. Hallie Ferguson Flanagan, class of 1911 [1]. Why did we name a theatre after an alum? Because Flanagan was an instrumental figure in American Theatre. Let’s consider why.

When Harry Hopkins ’12 was putting together the Works Progress Administration (WPA) [2], he tapped Flanagan to head the Theatre portion, the Federal Theatre Project. At the time he appointed Flanagan, Hopkins said something like President Main taught us the value of the arts, and the WPA will reflect that value [3]. What did that mean? It meant that the FTP [4] served two important purposes: It kept talented artists employed (playwrights, directors, actors) and it helped provide the arts to a wide variety of people who would not otherwise experience them. Can you imagine that happening in 21st century America?

Of course, like all good things, the FTP was soon derailed by conservatives in congress and elsewhere, who objected to the content of many of the plays and worried that the artistic types were Communists. I’m too lazy to look, but I’m pretty sure they also questioned the value of the arts. Nonetheless, for the four years that the FTP existed, it played an incredibly important role in American Theatre.

When I talk to students about Flanagan, I tend to focus on the FTP. But she also contributed to American Experimental Theatre through the rest of her career, primarily from her role as professor at Smith College (and, before the FTP, at Vassar [5]).

There’s clearly a lot more to know about Flanagan. But that’s why biographies exist [6]. What I’d like the students to know is (1) she ran the Federal Theatre Project; (2) at one point, our government thought it was worthwhile to actively fund the arts so that everyone could experience them; and (3) at one point, our government thought that the best way to handle massive unemployment was through the government, rather than through privatization. I hope that means that there’s hope.

[1] At what point does she go from being Hallie Flanagan ’11 to being Hallie Flanagan 1911? I thought that should have happened when we graduated the class of 2011, but I don’t think it did.

[2] You do know what the WPA is, right? If not, I’m really depressed by the state of American History education.

[3] If my Flanagan biographies were not buried in the mess that is my office, I would have pulled one out to get the exact quotation. But they are, and I’m writing the essay tonight. Maybe I’ll go back and fix it later.

[4] Federal Theatre Project, not file transfer protocol.

[5] Grinnell seems to have continuing connections with Vassar. Former Grinnell professor Jon Chenette is Dean of the College and interim president. Vassar graduates Leslie Gregg-Jolly and Rachel Schnepper are valued members of the Grinnell community. But I guess that Grinnell has many connections to strong liberal arts colleges.

[6] There are at least two good biographies of Flanagan. If you bother me enough, I might even be able to dig them out of my office. Alternately, you could take them out of the library.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-12-06.