Congress’s 1965 Arts and Humanities Act, which created the National Endowment for the Arts, asserts that “it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.” Yet federal support for the arts has always been controversial. Like the NEA today, the Federal Theatre Project was a political lightning rod in the Depression era. Established in 1935 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the FTP was intended to provide, in the words of FDR aide Harry Hopkins, “free, adult, uncensored theater” while getting artists off the welfare rolls. But the FTP was abolished in 1939 after an onslaught led by conservative, politically ambitious congressman Martin Dies.

“It was a precursor to the McCarthyism of a decade later,” says Lawrence Arancio, a onetime off-Loop actor and author of Sing for Your Supper, a musical revue dramatizing the FTP’s rise and fall. “Dies saw the arts as a nice whipping boy, just like Jesse Helms now. Back then the issue was communism. Today it’s homosexuality or ‘elitism.'”

Sing for Your Supper, which opens this week at Stage Left Theatre, is a timely project, considering recent attacks on the NEA, but the show’s genesis dates back to 1981. Arancio, then a student at the old Goodman School of Drama, and two of his classmates, Mary Peterson and Kathleen Sykora, put together a short draft of Sing for Your Supper, which had a three-performance workshop at the Court Theatre in 1982. “We had about 45 minutes’ worth of material, and we figured we’d hold a sort of backers’ audition to get support,” says Arancio. “We were young and dumb. Nothing happened. So we sort of dropped it while we set out on our careers.”

Over the next six years Arancio worked steadily in Chicago theater, winning several Jeff citations for his acting and also writing a play, Alcimero, that was produced by Pegasus Players. His last performance here was in The Nerd, which had a long run at the Royal George. In 1988 he returned to his native New York, where he worked in television and taught at New York University.

A fellow teacher one day asked him if he had any musicals up his sleeve, and the result was a staged reading of Sing for Your Supper. The performance prodded Arancio to do more research, including interviewing such sources as the stepdaughter of Hallie Flanagan, national director of the FTP. More workshops generated good word of mouth, and two leading New York companies expressed interest. But ironically, Arancio says, they couldn’t take the project on because it didn’t meet the guidelines for their arts grants. The show eventually made its way to Stage Left’s artistic director, Drew Martin, who slated it as the opening work of the feisty little troupe’s 15th season. (Arancio had hoped to be around for the show’s production, but his wife, former Chicago actor Ann Dowd, landed a supporting role in the ABC series Nothing Sacred, which is shot in Los Angeles.)

Sing for Your Supper replays the history of the FTP in the style of one of its famous “Living Newspaper” shows, weaving together vintage pieces by the likes of Marc Blitzstein, John LaTouche, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby. But if the songs and sketches are old, the themes are topical. “It’s all about the political and artistic battle that’s still going on, and the martyrs and scapegoats who are caught in the middle of it,” says Arancio. “Just like before. History repeats itself.”

Sing for Your Supper runs through December 21 at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield; tickets are $10 to $18. For more information consult the theater listings in Section Two or call 773-883-8830.

–Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.