Flanagan, Hallie

Flanagan, Hallie (Mae Ferguson)

(1890–1969) theater organizer, teacher, playwright; born in Redfield, S.D. She took her B.A. from Grinnell College in Iowa (1911) and within about 18 months she was married. Her husband died in 1919, leaving her with two children to support. She had done some teaching and play directing and when a play of hers won a local prize, she was accepted into George Pierce Baker's famous 47 Workshop at Harvard. She decided, however, that she could not afford to pursue a career as a playwright, and with her M.A. from Radcliffe (1924), in 1925 she accepted a position to teach drama at Vassar. In 1926 she had a Guggenheim fellowship to visit the theaters of Europe and on her return she founded the Vassar Experimental Theatre, which soon gained a reputation for restaging classical dramas. Even more noticed was her 1931 production, Can You Hear Their Voices?, a play about Arkansas farmers that she coauthored and staged with innovative techniques. In 1934 she married Philip H. Davis, a classics professor at Vassar. In 1935 she was invited to head what became the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and she soon had thousands of theater professionals producing a variety of works, eventually seen by more than 25 million Americans, many of whom had never seen live theater before. Her most famous contribution was the so-called Living Newspaper, documentary dramatizations of pressing social issues of the day. In a legendary hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, however, she was accused of promoting leftist ideas and the FTP was halted in 1939. She returned to Vassar and directed the writing of Arena (1940), an account of the FTP. In 1942 she became dean (until 1946) and professor of theater at Smith College (until 1955), continuing her lifelong efforts at relating theater to both educational and social concerns.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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