Furious ImprovisationHow the WPA and a Cast of Thousands
Made High Art out of Desperate Times

Under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, a daring 5-foot dynamo, the Federal Theater Project managed to turn a WPA relief program into a platform for some of the most cutting-edge theater of its time. This unique experiment by the U.S. government in support of the arts electrified audiences with exciting, controversial productions, created by some of the greatest figures in 20th century American arts—including Orson Welles, John Houseman and Sinclair Lewis. Plays like Voodoo Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock stirred up politicians by defying segregation and putting the spotlight on the inequities that led to the Great Depression.

In Furious Improvisation, Susan Quinn brings to life the challenges of this desperate era when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and the tough-talking idealist Harry Hopkins furiously improvised programs to get millions of hungry, unemployed people back to work. Quinn’s compelling story of politics and creativity reaches a dramatic climax with the entrance of Martin Dies and his newly-formed House Un-American Activities Committee, which turned the Federal Theatre Project into the first victim of a Red scare that would roil the nation for decades to come.

Critical Acclaim

“Quinn describes eloquently and artfully … a not-so-distant time when a nation bled and great artists rushed as healers into the countryside.”
Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
“A fascinating new book that describes a rare happy marriage between art and government.”
Maureen Corrigan, National Public Radio
“Quinn has gifted us with a key moment in the history of F.D.R.’s New Deal … thrilling and revelatory.”
Studs Terkel
“An energetic and adeptly detailed account of the remarkable achievements of the Federal Theatre Project … Much more than the sum of its fascinating parts.”