Spring 2013 URSP Participant: Travis Jones
This semester I have been working with Professor Howard Kurtz as a research assistant on his project entitled “Historical Perspectives on Costume Design in the Federal Theatre Project,” an aptly titled investigation into the lives and work of costume designers working for the Federal Theatre Project, a short-lived New Deal program charged with employing out of work theatre professionals and artists and artisans from other allied fields. While the program was only active from late 1935 until 1939, it staged 2,745 productions and kept thousands off the unemployment rolls. Moreover, it had a sizable impact on American theatre. The program diversified audiences through its African-American Division, its German-language Division and its Yiddish Division. Its non-profit nature allowed for innovations and experimentation that wouldn't have been possible in the commercial theatre and it launched the careers of directors like Orson Welles and playwrights like Arthur Miller who would loom large in American Arts and Letters during the second half of the twentieth century.
In case it's not obvious, I'm really enthusiastic about the Federal Theatre Project and have been for quite some time, so I was quite excited last semester to receive an email from the History Department calling for research assistants for Professor Kurtz. While, as a History major, I'm not the perfect candidate to help out with costume design research, since its not something I have any background in, the work that I've done has actually called quite heavily on the research skills I've learned within my major. Since this is the first semester that either Professor Kurtz or I have worked on this project, our work to date has mostly been information-gathering. That is to say, we have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we don't know and where we can find it. This has meant that while I expected that I would be spending a lot of time looking at drawings and photographs of costumes, I've actually spent a lot of time working with the type of social history that I'm used to by virtue of my major. It has also meant that I've been able to develop a number of the skills I hope to use professionally. I hope to pursue a graduate degree in Library Science next year and go on to work as a librarian in an academic library or archive. Locating archives where there is information on the Federal Theatre project and browsing through documents looking for pertinent information has been a really helpful exercise in developing these skills.
In some ways, my experience researching costume design in the Federal Theater has been characterized by the frustration of not knowing what I don't know. Flipping through boxes in archives and poring over publications without any guarantee of finding useful information can be somewhat discouraging. But there have been many rewards in the form of coming across information for which I haven't necessarily been looking. For instance, last week I came across one of the keys pieces to the social history puzzle of the Federal Theatre Project. One of the greatest significances of the Federal Theatre Project for costume designers was the unionization of the profession. Before 1937, costume designers were not admitted to the United Scenic Artists union; however, high unemployment among set and lighting designers meant that too little revenue was coming into the union in the form of dues. Because the Federal Theatre Project was keeping a large number of costume designers employed and so, as a measure to keep the union afloat, costume designers were added as a category of members of the United Scenic Artists. It is little morsels of information like this that make the work continually rewarding and make research interesting.