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Confessions of a Serial Intern

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.

I’ve become accustomed to working outside of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, and gotten used to sucking up sexism.

a woman looking at the camera
Annah Feinberg. Photo by New Play Exchange. 

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.

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?

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.

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What I want to know is, as an intern now on her fifth internship at a theatre full of nice people, HOW do I bring up this conversation if I'm unhappy in a relationship where I'm trying to have a mutually beneficial one?

A fortune cookie recently told me "Time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once." A life in the performing arts is best built on accumulation and patience. The reality of all education -- which internships should be -- is that you don't know where it will take you. Acting creatively, being open to what happens next, not expecting everything at once and following what feels true for you and your career are part of having a life in the arts. Stability is not a given in this field, and I've always thought that was partly what draws many of us to it.

Great article Annah! I loved your point about access...the thing about internships is that they by their very nature are limited to people of a comfortable economic background. When your working full time for free its hard to do without the financial support of your parents/family.

I just saw this "job" posting on playbill:http://www.playbill.com/job...

What does everyone think about an internship program like the one proposed above where the intern is actually paying tuition to be there?

Great article - and full disclosure I am one of those seven theaters. And indeed Annah was an extraordinary intern, and I'm happy to say we were able to give her a position as the coordinator of our R & D writers group. Of course, we've still been unable to get any funding for that program so it is indeed an underfunded position and program. And as many of us know that is the norm we work in. Doesn't mean we don't keep trying. I just wanted to add a point here that I think often gets overlooked in the human resource discussions in theater. That cold hard truth is that our non-profit system works pretty much like the cold hard capitalist system we live in. It's a matter of supply and demand. There are way more recent graduates and MFAs in dramaturgy than there are jobs for that. Same goes for directors and actors and writers etc. There is a demand for arts admin; a demand for development directors. I think there is for stage managers. I'm guessing interns in these fields go straight into paid jobs. Actually most people I know that studied in these areas didn't intern and went straight into paid work. But for those in the over-supply category it's a different story. I know playwrights, directors, writers, dramaturgs and actors all are expected to work for free (or almost free) for not just their early careers but off and on for their whole careers. A lot of that means readings and workshops. It's the result of most everyone being free agents in a system where their talents are in too much supply. And a consequence of all this is that many people who don't have the economic means to work for free are shut out of the opening gates period. (Think of some major institutions that actually charge their young aspiring artists to work) I think Annah and others bring up some great visions for other ways of working. And I wholeheartedly agree that the necessary change is systemic and it's not just the theater system. That said, there will never be enough theater jobs in this country to match the number of students getting degrees and right now the job openings are shrinking and the graduate numbers are growing. I think the space for those talents will have to be invented. Some of the new talent will eventually get one of these few spots for a paid artistic position or an economically viable free lance career. I hope that some of the rest will not give up but will help invent the new platforms whatever they might be. Cheers Annah for kicking off such a great discussion.

This is such an important discussion, and, as said earlier, one not just pertaining to theater. This problem isn't going away anytime soon. The true business goals of non-profit theaters (the same as for profit): decrease overhead, increase profit. Bring in more audience members, willing to pay higher ticket prices. Find more donors (or investors) and shrink the size of the work to stretch that money. If you can have someone do the work of five people for free, then why not? The only salaries (and lives) that really matter are the ones directly connected to turning profit. Look at the salaries of development staff (mostly senior development staff), communications (again, senior), and executive management. At many major regionals, we're talking a silly amount of money. It's all public information and a pretty easy google search. The point is, the intern doesn't matter, and, the misguided thought is, probably shouldn't in a capitalist economy. And sure, there are some bright spots, of course! Any broken system has a couple of pegs that haven't cracked. But we must understand that the system is still broken.

Young people add such incredible value to organizations, and the smart institutions understand this fact. More than cheap and free labor, youngsters keep you glued in changing trends. Because of their disposable income (ha!), they are the highest marketing targets and, therefore, much of the world is built on having them notice it. Youngsters understand technology in the way that only a person who grew up in the 80s and 90s can. They tend to embrace the constant changes in our world. Hell, they live for them. A cultural (?) question: What is blocking organizations from understanding that they need interns (and not just as cheap labor, but as teachers) just as much as interns need them? Theater audiences are aging and young people are not running in the doors. (Someone is going to make the argument that this is just a basic habit of the age group and as young people's cultural appreciations grow, so too will the audience numbers, but that's just an excuse, right?) What's to be done?!

So what is the real disconnect? This is, clearly, a bigger issue that will take years to fix. I mean, we're talking panel discussions, symposia, lectures, papers, studies, so on and so on. Or! to prove a point, interns could collectively walk the hell out one day. Organize. Seize some power. This indentured servitude must end! Most organizations could not survive 24hrs without their interns. Make them squirm. If anything, it'll show that you can.

I say this only to say, that there are real problems (and bigger than intern salaries) with the culture of these orgs. We're talking major changes that will only be fixed by the people suffering, because they are the only ones who will care enough to fix them. Hell, Occupy Non-Profit Theaters.

Kudos to Arden's apprentice program! And I forgot to mention in my posting about the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble's intern program that interns are given the opportunity of performing an "intern project" of their own choosing, directed by a BTE ensemble member and produced and marketed by the institution. Our goal is to develop artists whose work is driven by their own sense of mission.

In pouring over the discussion that has sprung up around Annah's provocative piece, I feel I must direct everyone's attention to the Arden Professional Apprentice Program at Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. I am a graduate of this apprenticeship program (distinct from an internship), which pays a living wage and includes health insurance coverage. The program also provides hands-on training in every area of theatre administration and production. Though the program does not lead directly to creative opportunities, many graduates (like me) become writers, actors and/or directors for the theatre. The program has been particularly important to expanding the theatre community in Philadelpia, with graduates taking on full-time and freelance positions at numerous other local theatres, and many starting their own companies.

I agree with Annah's implied point that discussion only takes us so far. We need data. I would suggest we look at the Arden's model as one that can and ought to be replicated at regional theatres with comparable resources in other communities.

The program gave me a professional home for four years, which turned into a creative home as well, where I served as assistant director on several productions and organized my own readings on dark nights.

In my mind, we can't talk theatre training without talking Arden Theatre Co. The founders of that program are true pioneers.

It's also worth pointing out that the American theater industry today and before 2008 are two very different scenarios. I think I read somewhere that we have only 75% of the number of jobs that the industry had in 2000. So people who were able to get their careers off the ground before 2008 likely have a very different perspective on the state of the internship than people my and Annah's age. The sense I get from theater workers in their early 20s today is that jobs in any department, including marketing and development, not just artistic, are extremely hard to come by. We worry that if we defect to another industry, our contacts will dry up and our job applications will be put aside in favor of those with more theater experience, even if it's unpaid intern work. I had a great experience interning for STNJ a few years ago, and its artistic director told the interns that success in theater is due in a large part to perseverance: "Stay in line," was how she put it. Interning is a way to save your spot in line; but when internships are unpaid, it often means that only the wealthy and privileged will be able to stay in line long enough, prove themselves worthy enough, to fill job openings.

I find that people older than me are often unaware of the prevalence of unpaid interns in theater; I have a friend who belatedly found out that her agent's assistant was an unpaid, full-time intern who'd been in the same position for a year before the agent offered her a salary. I agree that some hard data about internships would be enormously useful to us. We definitely need a clearer picture of the changes in the industry over the last few years.

Perhaps one of the particular oddities of my internship experience is that it began pre-2008 and ended post-2008. So, the internship climate I entered was not the one I left. This accounts for the incongruity in my expectation and my experience.

It was pretty much the same when I interned in the 1980's, and I struggled hard to work in the theatre for many, many years after. I do think more research would be helpful, particularly comparisons against other industries. But all careers are in flux now, don't you think?

Hey Annah (and everyone),

Thanks for getting this conversation going- it’s really great to hear everyone’s perspectives on this, and happy to see that so many folks weighed-in.

Something that I would like to clarify here is that I think you’re talking specifically about getting full time jobs in Artistic Departments at Theaters (Literary Manager, Dramaturg, Casting Director, Artistic Associate, etc). I feel like there are a lot of entry-level opportunities in all of the other departments at a theater: Marketing, Development, Communications, Front of House. Jobs in Artistic are probably the most coveted positions in the American Theater, and everyone is vying for them, so the success rate from internship to full time staff is going to be much less than our non-Artistic counterparts. I also think if you ask anyone who is in an entry level Artistic position now, they would tell you that they’ve done their fair share of internships: while internships don’t necessarily lead to full time Artistic Jobs, they certainly play a major factor in getting hired.

I’m one of the rare exceptions that you mention (I did two years of a Fellowship in the Casting Office at Arena Stage, and my boss/mentor got married and moved away, and I got hired as the Casting Director as soon as my Fellowship ended- I was 25 years old at the time). While I lucked into the timing of getting this job, there was absolutely no way that I would have even been considered for it had I not done those two years of fellowship (along with half a season somewhere else + a season of Summer Stock). To share some bright spots from my experience, our last three Literary Managers came up directly from the Fellowship Program, and both of our Associate Directors in the American Voices New Play Institute were former Fellows/Interns (one was a super Serial Intern who had done 6 years of internships before he was hired full time).

As I was coming up as an intern, there were lots of openings at my theater that I could’ve applied for and probably landed- but none of them were in the Artistic Department, so I held out. I think it’s important to know what you want, what you’re willing to do, and understand that a lot of things are going to be out of your control- as is the case with most of life. I completely agree that intern abuse runs rampant in the field, and that anyone who is responsible for hiring or mentoring an intern should really make it the best experience possible for both parties- the key here is Mentorship. Your internship is only going to be as good as the person who you’re being Mentored by.

Note: Mentor- not Supervisor.

Something else that you mentioned is about the diversity of the intern pool. I’m really happy you brought this up, because we do need more Arts Administrators of color in every aspect of the Theater. I’m a first generation Thai-Peruvian, and was lucky enough to be part of the Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship Program when the criteria was that you had to be a person of color (this fellowship is now open to all). While it seems fairer to open up the pool, if we really want to cultivate a new diverse generation of Artists & Arts Administrators, we need to make some radical changes to our hiring practices- particularly in the forms of internships. The argument can be made that closing off internship opportunities to non-colored people is reverse-discrimination, but the field has been talking about needing to diversify the administrative offices for years, and we’re still having the same conversation.

Thank you everyone for your thoughtful, passionate discourse. It is refreshing to hear so many bright spots within this conundrum in our industry, and I hope that by pointing out some of the dark spots, I have allowed in a little more light. While my experiences and the anecdotes of so many HowlRound readers are clearly valid, I think we really need some hard data about the state of theater internships in order to decipher how deep this problem really goes. I'd love to spearhead this study in some way--please reach out to me if you would be interested in working with me on it.

I hope I did not paint a purely dismal picture of my time as an intern. I am deeply, deeply grateful for my internship experiences, and for the meaningful relationships from them that remain important to me today. My situation is a unique one since I started interning when I was just out of high school. This meant that when I graduated college, I already had four internships under my belt, but was perceived as too young to carry significant artistic responsibilities. I am now slowly but surely moving past intern-hood: I'm in the second year of my MFA at Columbia and working part time (I’m paid, but not much) at two different theater companies.

Let’s keep this conversation going.

I have to disagree with you Annah. If you have an internship it is up to YOU to seek out the education it can provide, not the company's to stop and give it to you. Theatres get interns to do "grunt work" in exchange for having the opportunity to meet people, ask questions, ask for more artistic projects and educate yourself. I was a dramaturgy/casting intern for Philadelphia Theatre Co., house management/box office intern for The O'Neill Center and an Artistic Intern for The Hangar Theater during my college career. It was invalueable! I learned so much about how things works, politics, and while I was at the Hangar it did lead to a paid position as the assistant to the Associate Artistic Director. I made friends, colleagues, and now some of the directors I knew at those places come to see my company's work. Use an internship as a resume notch to apply elsewhere. Use it for the education and connections. It is your fault you did 7 of them and expected something handed to you. Theatre is expensive. You'd be surprised if you saw the budgets. Take what you've learned and move on. You've got tons of experience, now go apply for a real job.

I hope this article did not paint me as a passive receiver of opportunity--I work my ass off day after day to carve out a place for myself in the ecosystem of our strange, strange industry. My situation is unique in that I began interning right out of high school, so was still ridiculously young when I already had a bunch of them under my belt.

I know that theater is expensive. I know how a budget works. It is crucial to be a self-starter in this industry, but the fact that theater costs money is no excuse for institutional irresponsibility.

Thanks for your discourse.

You know, you're actually completely wrong Shara, sorry. An internship BY DEFINITION is supposed to be educational. Otherwise it isn't an internship and is in fact illegal. There was just a court case about this that may have a strong impact on theaters. Internships must be educational and NOT replacing a staffed position - in other words, an intern should never be performing a vital function that is necessary to the theater's work. If they are, that internship no longer constitutes an actual internship as ruled by the courts in New York very recently.

If you keep applying to internship positions, then you view yourself as an intern and the organizations view you as intern. Only if you consider yourself a full professional will you be treated as one.

A great essay, Annah, and valid in many fields. As someone who has spent too much of my young adult life as an intern in film and publishing, it seems that we youth need to find new ways (especially in post-graduate life) to be part of these worlds.

I can't help but think about a person's responsibility to themselves throughout all of this. While yes, it is laudable to want to get as full a complement of training as possible, at a certain point, a person needs to take a look at why they're interning in the first place.

Throughout these comments, I've seen mention of "career transitions", "new city", "just out of school", and I think that, yes, in all of these scenarios, you probably do gain some benefit from doing internships. However- once you've demonstrated work ability at an internship level, you're not really making yourself any more marketable by interning again- and definitely not full time, or right away. At a certain point, I believe it is the individual's responsibility to say, enough is enough, but I cannot continue to work for free. Yes, this might mean having to find full or part time employment outside of the field, but at least your work (and most of the time this work will draw on skills learned at said internship!) receives some sort of financial compensation. How long can you stand by, waiting for a crumb?

And I don't say all of this because I don't believe in learning through internships and unpaid work. Quite the opposite, in fact. I currently have an unpaid grant writing position at an off Broadway theater, because it was something I was interested in, and had no major experience. I dictate my hours though, and I make sure that the experience is mutually beneficial for myself and the company.

I believe that, once you're no longer a recent grad, and once you've got a fair complement of experiences under you're belt, you should utilize them in a way that continues to contribute value to your own conceptualization of your self. I recognize, particularly in Dramaturgy, literary development, and in artistic positions, unpaid, or barely paid internships will always be part of the theatrical landscape, unless some major shifts happen within the industry. But pepper them into your resume, don't just jump in again and again! Because if you view yourself as an intern constantly, so will everyone else.

There is a perception of higher of value in internships at institutions of higher status or prestige. I began interning at a very young storefront theater in Chicago, and worked my way to interning at one of the largest theaters in the country. Many theaters, especially more powerful ones, will not even hire an intern until she has a few internships at smaller theaters under her belt. Each internship is like a stamp of approval, pushing you up to the next rung of internship. But once you are at the top of the ladder, you realize it is actually a cliff.

A fantastic piece of writing Annah!

I've just finished my second internship in NYC post-graduation and have zero concerete prospects for the future. I'm trying desperately to move from NJ (commuting blows) and frankly I came into both positions thinking hard work, creativity, and great energy would yield results. Suffice it to say that thus far, they haven't. I'm still hoping that something comes of it, but just reading this has given me additional perspective on what kinds of expectations I need to adopt for the future.

Thanks for this!

I did an internship for a theater company for one year and it was so valuable (acting and directing) I felt that I gained the equivalent knowledge of an MFA grad.

I now live in New York, founded my own theater company (like 1,000s of others here) and have produced films. I can direct actors and have had 5 plays produced off-B'way in New York, and in a few other cities. I feel it was worth it.

That said, my former employer supported me for the year I had the internship. It's not possible if you don't have family or other support, cuz people need to eat and have health insurance. I was fortunate that I had people who cared about me and my future success in theater. Other people have wealthy parents.

This is a valuable article and discussion. Thanks Annah for leading it.

I wanted to call your attention to LMDA's Report on Internships (2009) which addresses some of these issues, which I heard about repeatedly during my tenure as LMDA President. I hope Annah's article, and the LMDA report, will give those designing internships, or deciding whether to pursue them, a stronger foundation for their choices.

http://www.lmda.org/resourc...

Ideally, people could make a living just working in the arts. In reality, most can't. But many artists, independently wealthy or not, figure out how to live and work sustainably anyway. They take strategic day jobs, found non-profits, and approach their lives with the same creativity their artistic work demands.

These are the practical things almost no one, everywhere from unpaid internships to MFA programs, likes to talk about. There are some exceptions. I was on staff at Headlong Dance Theater in Philadelphia, and the artists there freely share how they've done it in hopes that they can help the next generation.

Realistically, arts institutions aren't going to give up the free and essential intern labor they run on. But what if, in exchange, interns were taught how to survive in the field afterwards, from the people who know best -- those successful artists and leaders in a position to "hire" them in the first place?

Oh, and I should have said this earlier: the conditions of your internships may have been illegal. The six conditions in order for an internship to be legal are here: http://wdr.doleta.gov/direc...This doesn't get enforced much, but if you're trying to make a case to theaters, it'd be good to include that they're actually breaking the law. The "no immediate advantage" and "training for the benefit of the intern" criteria are definitely not met by having you all make copies.

Great article. A couple responses:
- The article doesn't state this explicitly, but I believe it is a logical conclusion: we have a responsibility at theatres to press applicants who already have more than one internship under their belt about their reasons for wanting to continue to take on internships. If it is solely about getting a theoretical leg-up for employment, direct those applicants to job boards and the employment section of ArtSearch. A productive internship has genuine, skill-based, educational goals. For internships, we shouldn't always accept the "most experienced" applicant, but the one who will be best served by the experience.

- If someone has not, Howlround should develop a list of questions for prospective interns to ask in interviews. The myths Annah points out are ones that prospective interns walk into the interview process with. Who are theatres that are misrepresenting their internships? Let's organize a small campaign to ask that they revise their copy; if this article is any indicator, inflating expectations compromises the whole field and cheapens the word intern. I bet five letters to senior management would go a long way, especially if they were from former interns. (I doubt it would inspire the big, less defined structural changes that Annah asks for, but might change the way they represent the internship to applicants.)

When I interview applicants, the following topics are brought up to invite conversation about them. But, really, every prospective intern should ask,
- "Does this internship lead directly to a job as a dramaturg?" (No.)
- "Will the pay meet living expenses?" (Where I work, yes for applicants without substantial debt, with serious caveats about lifestyle. Applicants with debt need additional part time work. I agree that economic and class diversity is a deep, systemic issue in internships and really theatre as a whole.)
- "What examples can you give of projects where former interns had ownership or creative input?"
- "How will you help me develop ______ skill?" (When I did my first interviews, I was very focused on dramaturgical writing for production, which I had absolutely no experience in doing. I think stating my goal clearly helped me land the internship where I wrote eight or nine pieces for newsletters and programs because my goals matched their structure. Having specific goals also helped me figure out which internships sounded like things I didn't want to apply for.)
If you can't ask these questions without feeling like the theatre gets defensive, withdraw your application and spread the word that people shouldn't accept internships at that theatre.

(To contextualize all of this, I now work fulltime for the Huntington where I did a one-year fellowship and a two-year grant through the TCG New Gens program. This fellowship was a direct result of a yearlong unpaid internship at Actors Theatre of Louisville. I now am partially responsible for the hiring and supervision of minimum-wage-paid dramaturgy interns who get health insurance. Out of two so far, both were hired by the theatre after their internship; neither were hired as dramaturgs, though one now works as a dramaturg at another theatre.)

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't we required by state law in MA to pay interns minimum wage? I only bring it up to point out that perhaps the notion that we can self-police, peer-pressure and caveat emptor our way out of the exploitation of young workers in the theater is likely to have limited success. Unless and until young workers stand up for their rights, first by knowing what they are and second by getting politically active (joining a labor advocacy organization, writing your congress critter) then a long term solution is unlikely to come by.

(Full disclosure: one unpaid internship, one underpaid internship then ten years in the wilderness before landing a for real theater job. At one of the theaters I interned for.)

Sorry these type of stories seem to be rampant in much of the nonprofit theatre world. But glad to say that not all theatres exploit their interns. The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble offers season-long, paid internships in which the interns participate fully in the life of the ensemble. We do not ask them to do anything we full-time ensemble members wouldn't do. They are offered mainstage roles (often leads), they engage in the play selection process (democratically run by the entire ensemble), they attend board meetings and serve on board committees. They are also asked to volunteer to do something in the community, outside the walls of our theatre. It's a fabulous internship. Often former interns are invited back to work with us as guest artists. Several interns have evolved into full-time ensemble members (and our ensemble employs ourselves year-round, with health insurance).

Thank you for writing this. I had a wonderful internship with a wonderful company made up of wonderful people, but there came a time when not having a voice became too hard and it was difficult to articulate this when I was so thankful for the experiences I had been given. I think the promise of jobs is often thrown into conversations because of well meaning professionals who hope that it is true, but that is precisely why we need to be talking about this.

It's clear from how you write that you have a set of skills that would be well-utilized and well-compensated in other professions. Prospective theater interns need to know that being expected to work without pay is not the norm for college graduates, and that by making different educational and career decisions, they will not only be better-paid but more appreciated and better-utilized. In most fields, there doesn't exist a glut of people willing to work for free, and while it's tough to persuade institutions not to use free labor if it exists, it's absolutely possible to decide not to volunteer your services.

While I agree with much of what you say, I, like other who have replied have seen many an intern subsequently hired in entry-level positions. I think it not only depends on the institution, but also the specified field. I don't know of an SM in the business who DIDN'T start as an intern somewhere, and the major midwest theatre that I was on staff for in the 90s/early00s hired all but 1 of their 12 SM interns that they had during my 4 year stint with them. Likewise carp/tech internships frequently channel into board-op/run crew paid gigs. I saw it happen less with admin / lit internships in part because there are, by the overall numbers, fewer such positions across the business and across the country. There is a degree of the law of supply and demand in effect here.

Wishing you success in what is next for you!

Tim - I think that this is a great insight to add to the conversation, and I'd like to complicate it a bit. Those entry level jobs that people sometimes get don't usually pay a real living wage, given the kinds of student debt with which people come out of college or grad school. My own experience is that, yes, I was offered jobs post-internships in fundraising, but the pay was often so low that I would not have been able to pay my rent. The people who can take those low-paid entry level jobs, after doing a free internship, are often either more willing than I was to go into further debt, or come from money and can sustain the long trek up the elusive ladder with subsidy from without. The bottom line is that, across the board, labor is supporting the institutions in theater because the pay scale is just not sustainable.

Hi Aaron-- I agree completely. Entry-level jobs pay horribly. my first real full-time job in theatre paid so little I continued to work at a bookstore part-time, and do freelance graphic work to make ends meet. There are prices to pay to do the work we love. While I have lots of college and high school friends that make tons more than I do, none of them are as happy in their careers as I. And that counts for something.

Brava Annah! Your eloquence on behalf of interns and challenge to our non-profit theatres is laudable. I too spent several years in internships before returning to graduate school, and in my case at least, internships did not lead to anything substantial beyond other internship opportunities.

It's not limited to theatre, though. Any profession where there are more people who want to practice it than jobs available is ripe for the exploitation of interns with no tangible rewards at the end of the stint. Look at publishing, music, etc. - even other types of non-profits outside of the arts. As long as the myth (which you are helping to explode) survives that internships constitute that "foot in the door" we'll continue to see a succession of bright, usually white college grads and students doing work that in any other profession would have to be paid for.

Senior year I applied for a internship at a major theater in my hometown. I REALLY wanted this intership. I respected this company and the ADs directorial work had influenced me very much. I made it to the short list and was interviewed by the Assoc AD. He informed me that in the upcoming season, the Directing/Literary Management Internship would no longer provide a $500 monthly stipend. Instead, it would be unpaid. I took a deep breath, accepted this fact, and expressed my continued interest in the internship. I would just work really hard over the summer, work TONS of OVERTIME and save up money for the season. He passed me on to interview with the AD. Yay! The next day I interviewed with the AD. The interview went well. I also reminded him that we had met previously. He remembered me. Then towards the end of the interview he discussed the lack of compensation,and asked me, "what do your parents do for a living?" I explained that I was raised by a single mother, with a low-paying blue collar job. He then questioned my ability to do an unpaid internship. I did not get the internship. This was my introduction to "Professional Theater" coming out of college.

This is a huge issue in our field and I'm delighted the issue is being raised. Just a little bright spot-- of the three amazing artistic interns at A.C.T. last season, two of them were hired full time this year, and nearly all of our stage management staff began as interns. One solution seems to be a clear contract between intern and theater about what the year's work will entail and how it qualifies in part as education, since this is why internships don;t fall within the minimum wage standards. Interns have to right to expect a clear structure and an access to those aspects of theater-making that they wish to study. Our job as artistic leaders is to provide that mentorship in a responsible way that ultimately fertilizes the field. Ideally one should be able to compare a year's serious internship to a year of graduate school, and it should in the end come out to be a better deal.

I really appreciated this very honest essay. I was wondering what kind of internships these were because when I was a stage-management intern at the ART in Cambridge, internships were in fact the way the ART found their paid production associates. Of course, there was a huge amount of exploitation - I did the job of an Equity ASM for six months, working 50-80 hour weeks and got paid a $600 stipend. On the other hand, I got to work on Pinter's Caretaker on of my favorite plays and I got to be in the room with David Rabe while he wrote Those The River Keeps.

Transparency is important, "no, this won't lead to a job so get what you want out of it" but to eliminate internships would eliminate an important aspect of training for many beginning professionals. It's not even a matter of "paying dues", it's a matter of building the stamina to be a professional. The most vital issue is how interns are treated, that these people are artists just as much as the paid people in the room and need to be treated as such.

Thank you Annah, for writing this!

My personal two cents on the matter is that perhaps we might consider evoking an earlier craft-worker model and return to calling certain opportunities apprenticeships; a non-or-low paid temporary position that allows one to study under a master craftsperson until one has (quote unquote) learned the finer points and details of said craft and is entirely capable of either opening one's own play-shop (as it were) or taking the job of the veteran trainer. Additional point being, once you've learned it, you don't need to learn it AGAIN, the key being specialized versus generalized education.

Perhaps an apprenticeship is more honest - especially considering that alternate definitions of the word INTERN include: "to restrict to or confine within prescribed limits, as prisoners of war, enemy aliens, or combat troops who take refuge in a neutral country.or impound or hold within a country until the termination of a war, as a ship of a belligerent that has put into a neutral port and remained beyond a limited period."

I've always regretted that I didn't do any internships post-drama school, but I had to pay my rent and feed myself, and in my family that's something people over the age of 18 have to do for themselves. No $50 a week gig was going to cover that, was it? Reading this reminds me that I made the only realistic choice I could at the time, and not to regret the road not travelled--it might not have gone where I'd hoped it would go anyway. (and yes, John Morogiello's work is wicked funny and Blame It on Beckett is a good insider laugh).

Read John Morogiello's BLAME IT ON BECKETT (formerly titled YOUNG TURG); it's about a dramaturgy intern at a major regional theatre.

It deals with this very situation.

It's based on an actual theatre.

It closed last month at the Abingdon in NYC.

And it's wicked funny.

Brava, Anna. You've expressed one of the dirty secrets of theatre, the future of the unpaid intern. I was hired after my internship, and my intern was hired when I left the theater, so I have a success story as far as I am concerned. However, the larger truth is that the structural fractures in institutions that profess to be all about art are profound. It is true that in many theaters the art is produced by a group of paid people who could not produce what they do without the interns. "Pay your dues" is an attitude ruthlessly practiced--and pronounced in our industry. The artistic director was an unpaid intern, he was once taken advantage of, and he will be sure you are, too. The way for theaters to pay interns is to produce fewer plays-- a heresy to artistic directors who will tell you that it's "important" that their theaters produce a "full season" to be perceived as legitimate. Translation: the artistic director is thinking about his next job at a bigger theater. If his theater produces fewer plays, he will be perceived as a minor A.D. leading a "small" theater. Boards of Directors are equally responsible, for they have accepted the system as it is without questioning why it is okay to pay an artistic staff who make the work possible 0 to 30% of the artistic director's salary. Except for the numbers, exponentially higher in business, how is this different from the outsized salaries of corporate CEOs? The structural inequities of theater, built around the myth of the artistic director, who struggles so you must struggle, perpetuates the system.

You state that theaters ought to do fewer plays so that they could pay existing staff more/ or interns something? Really?You stated reasoning doesn't hold up for more reasons than "perception of lesser/greater prestige".

If a theatre produces less work, than that's fewer jobs for actors, designers, technicians, and directors. Fewer shows mean less earned income, fewer opportunities to engage an audience or community.In your estimation, who is the theatre there to serve? It's staff or it's community and the art form?

I agree completely. There should be a standard of some kind regarding the status and value of the intern. There is no Equity, no IATSE, no union of interns to give a proper defense or outline of ethics. The only apparent recourse is to (most likely) leave the job/internship or (less likely and more daunting) talk to one's superior and hope they are both sympathetic and able to enact positive change.The catch is, no two companies work alike. Of my two internships (setting aside summer stocks and a fellowship), one company treated me as an artistic individual worthy of investment, even if they couldn't keep me permanently (and were very clear about expectation and opportunity) while the other saw me as cheap labor for unpleasant and dull but necessary tasks. BOTH made a profit, though I believe the latter's profit was greater. (Having a backbone of interns does have short-term rewards.) The latter taught me a great deal as I ended up working for four departments (including house management and the box office) but left a greater impression for what I would never again settle. The former appreciates the varied skills I have but never forces me to work more than I am willing and able. I think both were vital to my training as an artist and a human. However, that doesn't mean "This is how the industry works and has worked" should continue to pass as a viable excuse for such at best negligent and at worst maleficent ethics.

I can relate to a lot of this as someone who's had 5 internships at non-profit arts organizations (1 in college, 1 during grad school, 1 after grad school, and 2 after a slight career change). I was extremely lucky that my 5th internship led to a paid position--someone in my department happened to be leaving the organization right as my internship was coming to an end. Before that happened, however, there were many times that I felt defeated with no employment options available. I was doing a part-time internship, plus 2 other part-time jobs and volunteering.

Many organizations do make an effort to hire interns- it's just not always feasible. Another commenter had a good point in that sometimes you have to broaden your focus and look outside theater for employment. The skills from your theater internship will still be valuable, and you can always try to come back to working in theater if a job opens up. I think you just have to keep plugging away and keep working.

Hi Annah,

I really appreciate your honest and heartfelt essay.

However, while reading it though I found myself disagreeing with one major point- that internships don't lead to jobs. As a college student, my internship with an off-Bway theater lead to an ongoing part-time job with them. Post college, an ass't directing gig, which is a kind of internship, lead to a permanent full-time staff position at an off-off-Bway theater. At another off-off-Bway venue where I'm currently on staff, we've hired last year's intern for a full-time position, in her field. Also, four former and two current interns are regularly employed in paid hourly box office and front of house work. Any time we need any kind of work that has $ attached to it, we look to current and former interns first. One of the former interns who works front of house is about to put up a show at the venue.

So.. I guess in my personal experience as a former intern and one who now hires interns, I can say that depending on the organization, an unpaid internship CAN certainly lead to paid work. It really depends on the organization and the intern.

I also know several former interns from other venues I've worked at who used the skills they gained in their theater internships to get non-theater jobs- i.e. their marketing internship helped them get marketing work- their special event experience is now used in a job at a TV network- etc.

Additionally I know young theater-makers who've interned and then started their own theater company, using what they learned in all areas- making eblasts, holding benefit events etc- to the direct benefit of their art..

For sure there are many internships that don't work out like the above.. but is it realistic to expect every internship to lead to a paid position, either in our extremely under-funded field, or even in more financially sound ones? I believe internships still remain valid as useful pre-professional experiences. They really help new folks breaks into an industry that highly prioritizes 'who you know'-

Even now, many years later, the theater that I interned at in college invites me back for special performances of new shows, where I often end up having helpful conversations - sometimes with people who have become my colleagues..

Anyways, none of this is meant to take away from the frustrating experiences you describe, and the valid critique you offer - 7 internships is certainly a lot of experience to draw from- but only to offer my own point of view about internships continuing to have major value for many in the field-

Best of luck to you, we need you in this profession! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts here.

This is of course a larger discussion that does not just apply to theater, but I think that even if we agree that some internships lead to jobs (which clearly they do at some level), we still have to interrogate the privilege of being able to partake in an internship (particularly one with no monetary compensation) at all. I am very thankful to be in a similar situation where I can afford to participate in a part-time internship (in addition to working other smaller, paying gigs) while I attend school, but for some people part-time internships which do not pay, like those referenced in the main post, and especially full time internships with no compensation are just not an economically viable option. I think we can probably all agree that many, many internships afford their participants experiential value, but who can afford (in the more literal sense) to (more-than-possibly) forgo economic compensation? I think it's here where an interrogation of how far into their own infrastructures our theatres' call for "diversity" extends really resonates.

I do agree that the concept of full-time unpaid internships is pretty strange and is of course impossible for most folks. There is one internship program that I can think of that is billed as a prestigious season-long 'residency' and is quite competitive- and yet the off-Bway theater offering this must realize that the only applicants will be those for whom finances are not a concern, thus limiting their pool to a very small socio-economic group lacking in diversity.

It doesn't have to be that way- one off-Bway theater has an interesting model for internships. It doesn't hire college or grad students. They use a high school program where students are required to do an internship in their field of interest, usually 1 day or 2 half-days a week. They use 2 or 3 interns from this program per half-year. During my time at this theater, all of these interns were people of color, most were from low-income situations, and all of the students were having their first experience working in an office. The best interns were often hired after their internship ended for various hourly positions - administrative or production. It seemed like a really satisfying experience all around.

Just mentioning as one way a theater on the same tight budget as all the other non-profits worked out a different kind of internship program-

Annah: Your story breaks my heart because I firmly believe than an internship can provide an experiential learning opportunity that is unmatched and unmatchable. "An" internship -- not seven! Regrettably, I have until quite recently viewed internships only from my particular perspective as 1) a former intern who had a great learning experience at a very young age (and was subsequently hired by the theatre) and 2) a college professor who views an internship as an important complement to teaching/learning environment provided by the university.

Like you, I think a shift in attitude is needed: an internship is a learning opportunity for the intern, NOT a way for a theatre company to save money. I wrote about the former last spring in order to share some advice and best practices with both interns and companies: http://creativeinfrastructu...We also need to make sure that universities are not complicit in the unbalanced ecology you describe.

Best of luck to as you move out of internship mode!