Concord, Massachusetts

Two weeks of talks, readings, and discussions celebrating the written and the spoken word.

Susan Quinn

Events: The WPA’s Federal Theatre Project

Book: Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times

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Susan Quinn is the author of award-winning biographies of Marie Curie and Karen Horney, as well as Human Trials, which recounts the emotion-laden process of developing a drug for a difficult disease.

In Furious Improvisation, Susan Quinn tells the story of how, under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, a 5-foot dynamo, the Federal Theatre 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 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 such as “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.

Furious Improvisation is a vivid and engrossing portrait of the turbulent 1930s, rich in humor and anecdotes which combine to tell not only the story of the theater project but also of the Great Depression. It 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.