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{ 9 } \ Storytelling, Chiggers, and the Bible Belt The georgia Experiment as the Public Face of the Federal Theatre Project —ELIzABETH OSBORNE Their feet are still in the mud. They live in indescribable want, want of food, want of houses, want of any kind of life. . . . Their one entertainment is an occasional revival meeting, so when I get excited, tear around and gesticulate, they think it’s the Holy Ghost descending upon me. It isn’t. It’s a combination of rage that such conditions should exist in our country, and chiggers, which I share with my audience. HERBERT STRATTON PRICE, director of the Georgia Experiment One of the most frequently repeated stories of the Federal Theatre Project’s rural activities centers on a community puppet theatre in Georgia.Hallie Flanagan writes in Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre: In many places in Georgia the children were taught to make puppet theatres and puppets, and one day Herbert Price made a discovery. A little girl tried to smuggle the puppet she had been making home under her ragged dress, and when it was discovered she refused to give it up. “Hit’s mine. Hit’s the onliest thing I ever had what was mine.” The theatre changed its activity temporarily, and for the first time every child in the vicinity had a doll—a corncob doll dressed in gay clothes made of old sugar sacking dyed with the berries of the region.1 { 10 } ELIzABETH OSBORNE That Federal Theatre Project (FTP) personnel were able to integrate themselves into this rural southern community to such a degree is testament both to the power of theatre as a universal device and to the agency of the communities that embraced the project. This simple example shows the needs of a single child altering—if only temporarily—the activities of the local FTP; she stole a doll, refused to give it back, explained her reasoning, and soon all the local children had their own dolls courtesy of the FTP. The veracity of this story notwithstanding , it is a charming tale of the FTP’s effect on the small communities in Georgia and of the mythology that surrounded the project’s efforts. The story of this young puppet thief appears repeatedly in the FTP literature and epitomizes the goals of the project on national, regional, and local scales. This essay examines the so-called Georgia Experiment in terms of its goals and achievements, and then contextualizes it within the mythology of the FTP as a whole. In the Georgia Experiment, three distinct threads become tangled, resulting in an example of slippage between stated goals, reality, and the public face of the FTP. Why was this story so vital to the public face of the FTP? Moreover, what does it mean that no archival evidence for this particular event appears to exist? To examine these questions, it is first necessary to discuss the overriding intentions of National Director Hallie Flanagan with respect to the FTP as a national entity and then to look more closely at FTP activities in Georgia. I then juxtapose the reality of the Georgia Experiment with the public mythology of the project in the aforementioned anecdote. The FTP was the most massive, semi-cohesive national theatre ever seen in the United States. Under Flanagan’s leadership, it employed more than thirteen thousand theatre professionals throughout the country, brought theatre to an audience of more than thirty million, and fought to provide locally relevant theatre to a predominantly working-class audience. Flanagan’s task—to create a theatre that was “worthy of its audience” in quality and devoted to their lives and “immediate problems”—demanded a decentralized program that would capitalize on local talents and themes. Although controversial productions such as The Cradle Will Rock, The Swing Mikado, and the“Voodoo”Macbeth garnered more press, I argue that these productions operated not in the mainstream but on the fringes of the FTP—the exceptions rather than the rule. Indeed, I suggest that the heart of the FTP— the plays and projects that had the potential to be both national and local in scope—beat in the wilderness of the theatre world.Tent theatres...