By all measures of intern metrics, my experiences as an intern at seven theatre organizations in New York and Chicago have all been pretty wonderful. I’ve cultivated crucial relationships with artistic leaders in the new play world I have always aspired to play in. I have had significant insight into the structures and functions of a hefty handful of respected institutions. I’ve gained access to the work of writers that I would never have known about otherwise. I’ve improved my writing and communication skills, become savvy to industry politics, and gained an insider vocabulary that enhances my credibility as a serious theatre practitioner. But the “dark side” of the internship has taught me not to speak up or make independent decisions, and demanded my gratitude for the privilege of having my intelligence and labor exploited. I’ve learned to accept whatever breadcrumbs I’m given. I’ve learned to apologize incessantly or, even better, shut my trap. I’ve become accustomed to working outside of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, and gotten used to sucking up sexism.
Internships have been responsible for eroding my sense of my own value. Our nonprofit theatre industry, perhaps more than most of our country’s flailing industries, is entirely dependent on the work of under- or unpaid interns. College students, college graduates, graduate students, graduate school graduates, and adults in the midst of career change populate a significant portion of the offices of America’s nonprofit theatres. They tackle tasks from photocopying to script reading to special event planning to line producing. Many inhabit the desk and responsibilities of pre-2008 staffers, working part, full, or more-than-full time for a leg up, a way in, an artistic outlet, an inside view, a challenge, a chance. But what kind of chance do theatre internships truly provide? What myths run rampant throughout our theatrical community about the value and purpose of internships? And how much truth is there in these perceived chances? Do the skills acquired as an intern actually translate to impactful artistic leadership?
One troubling myth is that of the post-internship hire. A major tactic for convincing a potential intern that his or her future internship is worthwhile is to provide examples of former interns who have since been hired by the theatre organization of their internship. This is done on internship pages on theatres’ websites, in interviews, on the first day internship welcome session, intern seminars, and in one-on-one conversations with appointed mentors. I’ve been sold on this myth more than a few times—that there is some sort of causal link between being an awesome intern and getting a job. In my own experience, and the experience of many of my peers, this is an impossibly rare occurrence. I’ve been told more than once that I was the best intern such-and-such ever had, or was the best intern since so-and-so years ago, or had glowing written evaluations about my work in my months of intern-hood. I am not, nor have I ever been, a full-time paid staff member at any of those seven theatres. And I know I’m not alone in this. Though my amount of internship experience is certainly on the high end of our industry’s spectrum, I have many friends and acquaintances that have held between three and seven theatre internships. Many of them have excelled in these internships, formed great relationships, and then been tossed out at sea. While there are a handful of examples of this dreamy hire happening (largely due to extremely random circumstances), there are many, many more examples of great interns not getting hired. Their only options are to continue to intern at other theatres until some extremely random circumstance works in their favor, start a flailing theatre company of their own, or leave the field all together.
The most troubling aspect of this paradigm centers in access. When we have conversations about diversity of voices and perspectives in new plays, we should start by looking at the demographic most likely to receive internships. In my experience, most of the other interns I’ve worked with have looked suspiciously similar to me. If we are attempting to carve out a place for a multiplicity of voices to create the future of theatre, we must carve out a place for a multiplicity of voices in the institutions that are giving a platform for these voices. I am lucky to have grown up in a comfortable middle-class community, gone to an in-state public college where I received scholarships, lived at home in the summers I interned while also working some terrible jobs at burger restaurants and day camps. I was lucky to go to school part time my last semester of college and work full time at a coffee shop so I could save money and move to New York and sustain myself (eating lots of canned beans) for another year of interning. My relatively comfortable circumstances made choosing the poverty of internships possible.
To me, there are two possible solutions to the intern’s dilemma: get rid of internships all together or, create more sustainable ways (both for theatres and interns) to nurture them. Theatres cannot view interns as a way to pad the budget with free or cheap labor, moving bodies in and out over a period of months as if interchangeable and disposable. The most valuable experiences I’ve had as an intern have worked against this sense that I’m easily traded in for a cheaper model: whether it was a supervisor introducing me as her colleague, or being brought into a meeting, or a rehearsal, or reading and asked what I thought. The closer I was to the act of art-making, the less disposable I felt. But I have traded in my financial well-being for these ephemeral moments of feeling esteemed. But what is the alternative for theatres confronting financial scarcity? Hiring an unpaid intern is definitely the most obvious solution to increase the efficiency of an organization. But since when did our art form thrive on the obvious choice? There are surely other ways to squeeze an intern’s minimum wage out of a budget. One of the plays at one of the theatres that I interned for had two dogs in it. These dogs cost $800 per week to employ (including their handlers, personal dressing rooms, and trainers). The dogs came on stage for less than a minute in the second act to walk in a circle around the stage and demonstrate the wealth and eccentricity of the characters. At this time, there were fourteen interns employed by the theatre, about half of which were working full time. The full-time interns made $50 a week, the part-timers made nothing. In what world is this fair, productive, or just? If a budget is the reflection of the priorities of an institution, it is time for a shift in priorities.
How we treat personnel must be as considered as the work we put on our stages. There is no artistic justification for exploiting desperate and aspiring theatremakers. An intern needs to work with some sense of security and respect just as much as any artist. We must begin to put our egos aside and see the intern as artist, if we are going to have a future for our beloved art form. As a young person entering this field, and hoping to develop my voice as a leader within it, there is very little that I can depend on. What can I expect and assume about my future? Of course, I did not enter this field to live a life of affluence, but if I am to keep working at attaining what I’ve always hoped to attain, I need to be able to see a little further in front of me. I need to have a realistic post-intern road to take, even if that means paving my own. If I were to begin my short career over again, it is hard to say whether I would do anything differently. I don’t have any regrets over my choices thus far, but, I do wish I had known more about what I was getting myself into and that internships would be my only option for many years post-college. I wasn’t prepared to jump from place to place to string together my sustenance, and didn’t expect that my work from job to job would not always translate. I wish I had had some hard data about internships in the theatre industry, so I could make an informed decision for myself rather than relying on persuasive mythology.
We need to take a long, hard look at where interns fit in the ecology of our industry. If you work at a theatre that employs interns, think selflessly and shamelessly about how you view and value them. If you are an intern, think honestly and provocatively about your importance to the institution you are working in. At the heart of intern mythology exists a sense of desperation about and fear of the future. For most interns, it is a fear for their individual future. In shaky economic times, there also exists a fear on the part of institutions for the future of the art form. Let’s get to the heart of intern mythology; this could come through a research study of the state of internships in our field. It could come through structural or budgetary changes from all sides of the industry. Theatre does not begin in the rehearsal room and end on the stage. It begins much earlier than that, in the seeds of dreams we plant in the minds of the next generation of theatremakers.