When Ben Redding and Austin Sargent started Muddy Water Theatre Project, they did it with one goal in mind. Muddy Water is designed to bring new forms of theatre to Columbus, Georgia and to expand the local audience's view of how diverse theatre can be in a community.
In just a short time, they've produced shows unlike anything Columbus has seen to date. Their first official show, Glass Half Full, was an outdoor children's production featuring two miming clowns conveying the importance of environmental consciousness.
Now, Muddy Water is gearing up to open their first season with an unconventional evening of theatre appropriately titled Three Act Play. The production is composed of three short plays, each performed with a separate cast, and shown in succession with intermissions occurring between each show. So no, not a three act play - but rather three shows in one. In our interview with their team, Redding likened it to an evening of vaudeville reimagined for a modern audience.
But why vaudeville?
When planning Muddy Water's inaugural season, Redding and Sargent wanted to draw attention to a powerful historical parallel they feel is currently happening on a smaller scale in our city.
"The main mission behind Muddy Water Theatre Project is community, and showing that theatre isn't just about sitting in a seat," said Redding. "We believe that the power of watching live theatre is really a combination of the experience that you have, and the people that share that experience with you. We want our local audience to understand that theatre can be many, many things outside of the 'normal, traditional' box we often put it into subconsciously."
Three Act Play will take place at Pop Uptown which Muddy Water is transforming into a 1930s speakeasy - an intentional choice honoring a time in America's history when the federal government provided funding for the arts to experience a rebirth. The program was called the Federal Theatre Project, and was a part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.
Source: Federal Theatre Project presents 10 acts All Star Vaudeville, 1938.
"Three Act Play is meant to feel like a Vaudeville show - a style of production popular in the 1930s at a time when our nation relied on theatre to boost the morale of communities after the war," explained Redding. "While we are certainly not in the same type of economic crisis as our country was back then, it's hard to argue that great unrest is a reality in America right now. I hope our audience members find encouragement for the role the arts has and does play in the health of a community."
Through the Federal Theatre Project, Roosevelt aimed to provide funding to ensure that American culture rebounded after World War I. Originally established in 1935 under the Works Progress Administration during Roosevelt's first term, the Federal Theatre Project was a large-scale effort by the federal government to organize and produce theatre events across the country. It lasted only four years, but its impact is still being felt nearly a hundred years later.
Source: Orson Welles as Doctor Faustus, 1937. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (013.00.00)
Historically, the Federal Theatre Project is considered to have been wildly successful. In its four year period, funding from the Federal Theatre Project gave birth to many of the elements of American theatre we recognize today. Mainly, because it placed creative individuals on salaries that enabled them to develop entirely new forms of art. There was even an initiative for people of color - the first of its type in our nation - long before the civil rights movement began.
Source: Photograph of Hallie Flanagan, national director of the Federal Theatre Project, speaking on CBS Radio.
According to a report from the Library of Congress, "The FTP was administered from Washington, D. C., but its many companies stretched the full breadth of the Nation. It functioned from 1935 to 1939 when its funding was terminated. In that brief period, it was responsible for some of the most innovative staging of its time. While the primary aim of the FTP was the reemployment of theater workers on public relief rolls, including actors, directors, playwrights, designers, vaudeville artists, and stage technicians, it was also hoped that the project would result in the establishment of theater so vital to community life that it would continue to function after the FTP program was completed."
Source: Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth. Finding Aid Box 1179.
The FPA developed over 200 productions - many of which are considered fundamental titles of the American theatre repertoire. Titles we recognize today include The Wizard of Oz, Candide, and Death of an American. In addition, FPA created outreach programs that covered various ethnic groups and their neighborhoods, radio shows, a circus, arts projects, puppet shows, dance, and more.
"I wanted the ambience of Muddy Water's first full production to harken back to the time of the Federal Theatre Project because we believe it's a powerful lesson for our community today," said Redding. "During a previously problematic time in our country's history, our government decided it was really important that we invested in the arts. As a nation, we dedicated millions of dollars to hiring artists to create work in the theatre to boost morale across the nation. And it worked. Theatre, and American culture of all forms, thrived. There was a large increase in representation of all people. People were proud to be American and actively participate in culture."
Though times are different, Redding and his team believe the parallel is clear, and the lesson learned from the Federal Theatre Project is still incredibly valid.
"Although happening on a much smaller scale, a similar, more modern type of cultural renaissance is taking place in our community today. Our team at Muddy Water is proud to be a part of that, and we're excited to further discuss its importance at our first production this Fall." ◼︎
Poster photography by Kenny Gray.
Stay tuned for more about Three Act Play next week, when we introduce the cast and discuss the three individual shows within the production. In the meantime, we invite you to further familiarize yourself with Muddy Water Theatre Project and Three Act Play at the links below.
If You Go:
What: Three Act Play
Where: Pop Uptown
When: August 22-24
Muddy Water Theatre Project will not be offering walk-up tickets to Three Act Play. To secure your seat, click here to purchase a ticket.