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Response to “Making a Career, Making a Living in the Arts”

Just as HowlRound was finishing up its tweet chat on "Making a Career, Making a Living in the Arts," the news broke that a judge for the Southern District of New York ruled that Fox Searchlight had violated the law by not paying its interns.


Logo for the United States Department of Labor.


The U.S. Department of Labor has guidelines on what constitutes an internship and what is minimum-wage work, but those guidelines are subject to some interpretation, and many corporations have proved all too eager to interpret them liberally. Today's ruling takes a big step towards clarifying these criteria by determining that what interns on Searchlight's production of Black Swan gained from the opportunity was "incidental to working in the office like any other employees and [was] not the result of internships intentionally structured to benefit them."

In other words, businesses can no longer claim that simply being on the set or in the rehearsal room is a benefit worthy of an internship.

Nonprofits have always had some leeway in these matters because they are allowed to have volunteers. But there is a legal distinction between interns and volunteers, too. The Department of Labor defines volunteers as people who do not have any expectation of benefits and who are not being trained for a job. In other words, even nonprofits won't be able to simply start calling interns volunteers. Therefore, over the next few years, organizations will need to look closely at their internship programs to ensure that they are really "providing training at no benefit to themselves."

Though companies offering internships cannot do so in expectation of benefiting from them, the industry as a whole can and should determine what our community gains from internships as well as how best to structure them to facilitate those gains without asking workers to provide free labor.

The law on this is still evolving, but as it does, we have a great opportunity to ask questions of ourselves, our economy, and our art. Though companies offering internships cannot do so in expectation of benefiting from them, the industry as a whole can and should determine what our community gains from internships as well as how best to structure them to facilitate those gains without asking workers to provide free labor.

@HowlRound Working for no pay or underpaid has created a false economy in the whole nonprofit sector (not just theatre) #newplay — Linda Essig (@LindaInPhoenix) June 13, 2013

I was privileged enough to have the support of my parents when I was starting out and was able to do two summer internships. For me, as for many people, they provided me with connections as well as valuable hands-on experience. They also involved a lot of tasks that the Labor Department would not have considered legal in the context of an internship.

I'm glad I did these internships, but it troubles me that the only way to begin a career in the theater is to have financial support from somewhere else. If you weren't born into the middle or upper class, the primary avenue to a career in our field is not an option for you.

Let's think about this for a second. We talk a lot about diversity in our business—about a desire to serve a variety of audiences and reflect the full spectrum of American life on our stages. Can you imagine how much our art and our audiences would change if people not born into privilege could take advantage of internships?

We are all on tight budgets—institutions, families, and artists. Clarifying the distinction between what constitutes work, internships, and volunteering will help companies clarify their mission and structure—both keys to balancing the budget. Finding a way to pay interns for the portion of the work they do that is not training would give whole new groups of Americans a shot at a career in the theater, which in turn would exponentially expand the possibilities of the stories we tell and the people who want to hear them.

If that's not part of your mission, well I guess I think it should be.

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Dear Holly,
Kudos to you for speaking out on this issue, which, by the way, has been going on for DECADES. Some of these internships really do rely on students to commit to a sort of indentured servitude, or, in the case of some programs I can think of on "the other coast", out and out slavery. The ability to be able to survive these situations absolutely rests on fiscal solvency provided by someone else (or in the case of one comment below, a steely resolve and the ability to subsist on the chemicals found in Cup of Noodles). Unfortunately, this form of free labor extends into the working sector, where hundreds of prestigious "non-profit sector" jobs paying $32K a year (which by the way doesn't come close to paying one's meager subsistence in LA or NY....worse if you are a single parent) for a 40+ hour work week. By the way, did I mention that those gigs usually come with several pages of intellectual qualifications which had to have come through family or social connections (travel, "enrichment", dinner party conversation with movers and shakers of the day), summer programs abroad or a fancy education (more family support or lifelong, crippling indebtedness). But naturally the salary isn't in question. "You don't actually need the money, do you?"
So how is the average young person, particularly one not privy to the upper echelons, ever able to climb their way to the top? No wonder we haven't heard their voices. Yes, Virginia, these days one has to be able to "afford" to work. Having a spouse who makes a decent living, or an inheritance from Aunt Clarissa will allow you to keep showing up at your classy gig, wearing the hip outfit that validates you as an arbiter of cool, and clutching your mid-morning latte as you review the latest restaurants and nightspots that continue to validate you as a cultural insider.
The rest of us spend the day paying lip service to the "mission" and "the art" and our "dedication", then go home to face Visa, ever-escalating rents, the fact that you still need to eat and a car you park around the block lest it out your real rung on the economic ladder. It's not fun waking up in the middle of the night - when you're supposedly gainfully employed - in a cold sweat wondering how you're going to pay for tomorrow's parking at your exclusive artsy think tank. God forbid you mistake this "position" for work, and expose yourself as the only one in the room who actually needs this paycheck. (*Feel free to substitute "educator" for artist. Same difference.)
Respect for the arts begins with respect for the artist - a living wage for performer and arts administrator alike - which would eliminate the elitism created by closing off these positions to people who are lucky enough to have other people subsidizing them. It starts with telling the real story about what survival in a 21st century metropolis requires, and setting salaries accordingly. "But the arts wouldn't survive," you say. Yes they would. Just tell Uncle Horace and his cronies to make a small monthly donation to your employer's non-profit (that way he won't have to write a larger check to you when you collapse into penury!) In this scenario, the institution is free to engage a diverse staff, pay them a respectable wage, and give all our communities a greater sense of respect. Only then will we be in the business of creating real art for the people, by the people, without the blood of the people paying the price.

One of my great regrets was having to forgo the internship track post-university. Too much unpaid time that couldn't flexibly fold around my paying job. One model for future internships might follow university work-study, which at least in my case worked very well. My work-study bosses bent over backwards to help me adapt my hours and jobs around my classes, rehearsals, etc. For a while I worked 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. on an info phone line. Another job was ushering for the university movie theater--which didn't really need a full squad of ushers but it was a way to get us a badly needed paycheck. When I'd get cast, or have a workshop, or when class schedules changed, the job schedule would be adjusted. The work-study supervisors considered that their job: to make it possible for the students to earn something, one way or another. Internships could be structured more to the interns needs and less to the sponsoring organization's needs and open up to a whole new group that would be eager to step in.

It is hard to get into any field without valuable internship-like experience and hard to have an internship without financial support. Interns are learning, but they are working, too. Workers deserve income.

There is no doubt that this problem reinforces racism and class discrimination. I believe that institutional racism and class discrimination are prevalent in all facets of America, including the American theater.

From my point of view, it seems that the American theater sector is only concerned about inclusion of individuals (white and upper middle class )who can provide financial support to its institutions.

Undoubtedly, providing financial support to a family member so that he/she can can gain experience is a form of "off the books" fiscal support.

In any case, this form of business practice promotes an unequal playing field and caters to a certain group(haves) at the expense of another(have nots).

In any event, this form of discrimination hinders creativity as we're seeing the same assembly line plays along with the same audiences.

I thank Holly Derr for speaking up on an issue which greatly hinders many opportunities for minorities and lower income/working class whites attempting to break into the business.

Likewise, I've dealt with this issue personally. Not only does it promote racism, but it keeps the business of theater stagnant. I question whether theater can grow in such difficult economic times practicing such blatant discriminatory methods. As you can see, America's cultural makeup is changing. If America is changing, so must its theater.

Until the American theater deals with this issue in a proactive way, its survival will depend on the kindness of the same well-off strangers. To be sure, their product will remain stale and irrelevant until they enter the 21st century.

I have done three separate full-time internships with no additional help from my parents. They were each invaluable experiences that left me with great (paying) opportunities. While I had to work additional jobs to make ends meet, I think it's unfair to say you absolutely must have financial support to do them. I'll admit, it's frustrating at times and tiring always, but where there's a will, there's a way.

Thanks for the insight and good for you! That's awesome. With the internships I did there was not an option of having a part-time job; it was a summer theater festival with round the clock activities. Many of the top-tier summer internships are structured that way and it's too bad. Plus if you don't already live in the area you have to pay for housing, which is usually a dorm in which it's very difficult to cook or store food, which makes feeding yourself pretty expensive, too. Those are really big barriers for people with no assets.

Holly: Thanks for the post and the shout out. Here is the link to the Department of Labor site that I tweeted during the convo: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs... The page lists six questions that are a "test" for the unpaid intern. How many of us held internships that would fail this test? How many now work for organizations that regularly do?
- Linda