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Internships are Dead. Long Live Internships.

Ten. That is the combined number of internships we—Michael and Ashley—have completed. Michael worked five internships that spanned three theatre companies—at two he interned twice in different departments—and landed a full-time job where he spent six years. Ashley began interning at outdoor Shakespeare performances during summers in high school, and a post-graduate internship at a New York theatre festival introduced her to many of her future collaborators in the city. These experiences showed us what we wanted (or forcefully did not want) our professional lives to look like and taught us the necessary skills to pursue careers in theatre. As interns, we’ve met lifelong friends and had transformative artistic experiences. We’re examples of internships doing what they’re designed to do: provide emerging artists with the experiences, training, collaborators, and mentors that will prepare them for fulfilling careers.

We’re also the epitome of internships privileging privilege. None of our professional training experiences paid us a livable wage, and most did not pay at all. At the start of our professional careers, internships often required interns to relocate, although theatres often failed to provide housing or charged their interns for room and board. Plus, demanding schedules often prevented interns from seeking outside employment during their internship. These pay-to-play working conditions actively marginalized many qualified early-career theatremakers, which stripped away the potential for the internships to serve as true incubators for a new generation of theatre professionals. And then we wonder why the field skews so white and male today.

This is deeply problematic. So problematic, in fact, that one of the theatres Michael interned for has recently eliminated their entire internship program. The initiative had been an essential part of the theatre’s creative mission for over forty years. Although no public explanation was given for the program’s dissolution, it seemed like the theatre wanted to drop internships that checked too many boxes on the “inequitable professional training initiative” report card. Most of their interns relocated (check!) to a city where they received no housing (check!) and spent nine months working long hours (check!) for only $5000 total (check!). Perhaps the theatre realized they could not afford to create adequate working conditions for their interns and made the difficult decision to dissolve the program. That theatre is not alone in their choice: there is a larger national trend towards the elimination of professional development programs in regional theatres.

Seven sets of lockers with interns names taped on them.

Row of lockers previously used by apprentices at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Michael DeWhatley.

While it is laudable that these theatres no longer run programs that contribute to the industry’s holding pattern of inequity, complete cancellation is ultimately a failure of imagination. More importantly, a dearth of internship opportunities threatens to leave early-career theatre workers without the professional development they need to thrive. Rather than retreat from their internship programs, how can future-minded theatres revolutionize these programs to create a more diverse, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial set of initiatives?

While it is laudable that these theatres no longer run programs that contribute to the industry’s holding pattern of inequity, complete cancellation is ultimately a failure of imagination.

Internships Are Dead

“Traditional” United States theatre internships are dead. When we say “traditional,” we’re mostly talking about full-time, unpaid, nine-to-twelve-monthslong internships at professional theatres, many of which began decades ago. They were usually designed for recent college graduates, though there were also many part-time internships and summer-stock apprenticeships for individuals during and after their undergraduate education. It’s been easy to not notice the demise of these professional training programs, which came with all the lament and solemnity of snapping a rotten branch off an old oak.

When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, some internships limped along, having already accepted an incoming group of interns and apprentices for the 2020–21 season. Many, though, were outright cancelled. As equity and accessibility have taken on larger and larger parts of our national conversation post-COVID, theatres seem to have made the decision to leave their internship programs shut down, quietly, with no public statement about their elimination. Internship sections of some companies’ websites have suddenly disappeared: 404 Error, Page Not Found. Others have offered a vague statement, saying something to the effect of, “We’re not accepting applications at this time because of COVID-19,” though the sentiment feels a bit dated. Theatres across the country are returning to live, in-person programming, but their internship programs have not made the same comeback. Are there roadblocks beyond COVID-19 that might not gleam so brightly on a webpage?

None of the internship programs Michael went through from 2010 to 2013 are available to people looking for internships now. Of the two dozen or so companies listed on a Playbill article from 2019 about internship opportunities, over half seem to have eliminated their programs altogether. The ones left seem to be either part-time, or are paid minimum wage for their area or higher, a sure step up from the traditional model.

It’s good that internships are dead. While they provided a space for growth, artistic experimentation, and access for people to see how large-scale theatres operated, all too often they also created a harmful space rife with oppression, exploitation, and white supremacy. These internships often took advantage of the idealism, labor, and career aspirations of young people to advance a theatrical mission that had nothing to do with them. Traditional internships are neither equitable nor accessible. We know that. Smart people have been telling us about the problems of these internships for quite some time in public, and even longer in private.

Michael DeWhatley in a green shirt and jeans holding some wires.

Michael DeWhatley as an intern at Lexington Children’s Theatre in 2010.

Long Live Internships

In the face of these wilting internship programs, American theatres must identify and cultivate worthy successors. Professional training remains essential for anyone beginning their career in theatre. Internships have provided crucial opportunities for theatre students to apply skills outside of the classroom and for individuals without formal theatre education to gain fluency with the industry. These programs transmit essential institutional knowledge through mentorship and active participation. Plus, many interns find collaborators among their cohorts; the shared space of the theatre provides fertile ground for future creation. Theatres should be careful to maintain these opportunities.

Internships benefit the staff and programming of theatres, too—and not just because interns have historically traded their labor and energy for the opportunity to train. Given the chance to contribute meaningfully in the day-to-day operations of a theatre, interns can offer fresh perspectives and new approaches that may not occur to more established staff members. In an industry that purportedly values community and a breadth of viewpoints, this direct infusion of new ideas is invaluable. And long after the completion of an internship program, many theatres continue to benefit from their interns. Theatre staff across the country welcome back their former interns who made the leap into full-time employment, and many theatres reference famous former interns across their marketing materials and social media presence. Professional training programs allow theatres to live out the value of education, which is often a core component of the missions of those artistic organization.

In the face of these wilting internship programs, American theatres must identify and cultivate worthy successors.

Future-minded theatres have been innovating their approach to professional development for quite some time. Many of these innovations are contingent on partnerships between theatre companies and community organizations or educational institutions. For example, rather than simply dismantling internships altogether, Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City created the Theatrical Workforce Development Program (TWDP) in 2015. The TWDP is a three-year program for local residents aged eighteen to twenty-four to receive hands-on experience in various fields of technical theatre, matched with IATSE mentors. It’s a pipeline to a career in technical theatre that begins with training at the Roundabout and then engages a network of five employment-partner theatres to ensure the fellows have the opportunities, support, and network to have fulfilling careers.

Another example is Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) in Williamstown, Massachusetts, whose intense and historically tuition-based internship and apprentice programs were cancelled for the 2021 summer. Instead, WTF began their Early Career BIPOC Theatre-Makers Program in partnership with Black Theatre United to create new opportunities for early-career artists of color, offering financial support, mentorship, and access to affinity groups. There are also many examples of robust partnerships between MFA programs and professional theatres, such as the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House program, the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA programs, and La Jolla Playhouse/U.C. San Diego MFA programs. These sustained relationships have mutual benefits: students expand their professional network while getting academic credit and universities form deeper connections with local artistic communities. As theatres continue to focus on equity, accessibility, and inclusion, we are excited about the new partnerships and opportunities that can form for professional development.

Ashley Malafronte in a black shirt and kakis painting on a stone wall.

Ashley Malafronte as an intern at Elm Shakespeare Company in 2012.

We don’t believe that the theatre companies that have eliminated their internship programs are wrong to have done so. Indeed, we hope this signals a rethinking of those programs. But we also hope these companies think quickly. COVID-19 has stolen valuable time from a generation of theatre artists. If United States theatres want to have transformative leaders creating incredible art, professional development programs are necessary and good. We both benefited from these programs enormously as we transitioned into professional environments, and that benefit should be shared, not restricted.

Of course, internship programs are not run in isolation. Over the past year, we have witnessed theatres across the country grapple with increased demands for greater accountability and anti-racist action. Professional training is a core component of that conversation, and theatres committed to a more just future must create programs that model equity by supporting people holistically, cultivating their talent, and creating a more diverse and equitable field.

What might professional development training look like if the goal isn’t to teach people, “This is how it’s done, now do it,” but rather, “This is how we’ve done it, what can we learn together to make it better?” What if all theatre workers’ very first professional experiences taught them that theatre values mentorship, cares for its workers, and elevates their voices? What new levels of sustainability, equity, and justice might we all reach? Without reinvented training programs, we might never find out.

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