Theatre-ing While Disabled

Intern Edition

In this series, Kate highlights some of the twenty theatre job titles she’s held over the years, rating them based on their level of awesomeness / non-awesomeness through the lens of her physical disability. Each position is ranked on a scale of one to five possible canes.

In this installment, I’m going to do something a little different: I’m going to tell you about a theatre job that I have never held. It’s a position that’s often deemed essential to success in the field, and one that I feel I’ve missed out on by not experiencing. But dude. There’s no way I can envision a world in which I could accept an unpaid internship.

Not everyone has the physical capacity to work a morning shift at the coffee shop, a nine-hour day at the theatre, and then head on over to their night shift at the bar. I couldn’t have pulled it off. I simply don’t have that level of hustle in my uncooperative body. And, frankly, neither do any of us.

First, credit where it’s due: As an industry, we seem to agree that unpaid internships are less-than-ideal at best and the Devil’s armpits at worst. Center Theatre Group, Roundabout Theatre Company, and Seattle Repertory Theatre come to mind as organizations committed to paying their interns, and I love this about them. A longer list comes to mind of organizations where there is perhaps commitment in the heart of many individual employees, but no commitment in the actual budget. In this case, purity of the heart is no substitute for cold, hard cash. And a transportation stipend.

Unpaid internships create a million barriers. Economically disadvantaged young people are especially precluded from the ability to work for free all day. We all seem to agree that a candidate would need another source of income to be able to pull off an unpaid internship, whether that is parental support or a solid side-hustle. However, not everyone has the physical capacity to work a morning shift at the coffee shop, a nine-hour day at the theatre, and then head on over to their night shift at the bar. I couldn’t have pulled it off. I simply don’t have that level of hustle in my uncooperative body. And, frankly, neither do any of us. We usually do it anyway, much to the chagrin of our future selves and our future selves’ cardiologists.

We theatre professionals can get weird about the idea of paid internships when challenged on our policies. On the notion of working additional jobs to afford acceptance of an internship, I have heard exactly one metric ton of, “Well, that’s what I had to do when I was in college.” Yes, there’s value in that, and you should absolutely be proud of how hard you worked on your way up the career ladder. I’m not here to rob you of the sense of accomplishment to which you’re entitled, at least not the first two times you tell me about how you worked in that coffee shop. But the third time you tell me this as justification for not paying your interns a stipend, I might make you some The Great Gatsby word art to hang above your desk:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.

It will be tasteful and hip. A teal square with gold, embossed letters in a whimsical font, matted in white. And you’ll be like, “But I wasn’t advantaged! Sure, my parents were wealthy robber barons, but I put myself through college. It was important to me to say no to their money.”

So, on the next gift-giving occasion, I will install a video exhibition in your cubical that plays Pulp’s “Common People” on a loop. In the viewing area, there will be a floor cushion, upon which I will embroider, “Watching roaches climb the wall / If you called your dad, he could stop it all.”

If, after that, you’re still all, “But the problem with these millennials is that they don’t understand the value of hard work. They’re so entitled. It would be unpatriotic for me to pay them for this internship,” I’m just gonna change your screensaver to scrolling text that reads, “Check your privilege, oppressor.”

a couple smiling
Not an internship: Working through college at Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise. I got a paycheck, sick time, and a husband out of the deal. Win/win/win!

The real reason we don’t pay our interns is that we don’t have the money. That’s a respectable reason. Any potential candidate who doesn’t come from a proud tradition of robber-baronry won’t think less of us for not being as rich as we’d like.

When we can find the money, though, let’s prioritize a decent stipend for our interns. And if we can’t do that, let’s at least stop pretending we’re doing our prospective interns a favor by declining to pay them.

Conclusion:  I give unpaid internships a Disability Awesomeness Rating of 5 out of 5 canes if you have a disability that precludes you from working 75-hour weeks, but your parents are super-rich. If that describes you, take that unpaid internship with my hearty blessing! It's a great experience that will certainly help your career. And maybe also talk to your mom about the sweet tax write-off she’ll get if she sponsors your theatre’s internship programs during the next fiscal year.

If, however, you're a mere normal person, this job gets 1 out of 5 canes. You'll still have insider access to all kinds of fancy theatre stuff, but you won't appreciate it as it's drowned out by the sweet, siren song of your bed/your next dose of Advil. 

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Thoughts from the curator

Kate Langsdorf writes about her experience with different jobs in theatre.

Theatre-ing While Disabled

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zing zing! i do love that Pulp song....would be great to see more comprehensive info on orgs. that pay interns, and transparency about conditions.

I also liked this article a lot. But I feel the need (despite my personal vow to try to not comment so much) to point out that part of the problem is the tremedous irony (to me anyway) that it is illegal for an institution to pay somebody less than minimum wage -- unless they pay them nothing at all! Thus even if a theater could afford to pay close to minimum wage, they are (in general) legally prevented from doing so.

I once had a minimum-wage job that involved (amongst other janitorial duties), yes, cleaning out public toilets. I assure you I would have much preferred to have had an arts-related job even if it payed slightly less than minimum-wage!

(Even though I'm a white male I don't consider myself particularly privileged as growing up we were evicted at least three times that I know of [because of being so far behind on the rent], and occasionally had the heat and/or electricity turned off due to being so far behind on the bill.)

This is a great point. Though when I do see paid internships, it's usually billed as a "stipend," which somehow is well under the threshold for minimum wage. (But I personally still celebrate stipends for interns as being better than nothing and/or a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.)

I liked your article very much. In the German theater there was a strong tradition of not paying the interns for a long time, equivalent to the so-called volunteers (Volontariate) in the media industries, a common requirement to become a journalist. But this tradition has changed in recent times, fortunately, and there are more and more (not all) responsible producers and directors who pay their interns, at least a minimum wage.

Even if there is not enough money in a production, which is the most important problem of all kinds of productions I know and I was responsible for in the public or independent theater, I have time and space to reflect on the question who is the most important part of a theater production. It is - of course - the actor and performer, the singer and dancer, but it is as well every assistant and intern behind the stage. And it is - of course - much more important to pay your intern than to finance an additional sound machine or light installation. You have always room to balance the positions in your budget. It depends on your priorities and the kind of commitment, a commitment to the people, to fair working conditions, to an ethical frame of the production process in theater - or to the technical equipment or additional marketing, which is important as well. So, finally, it would be great if as many theaters as possible would be fair to their artists and employees.

You are right, Kate, we have to give budget priority to all personnel costs, including interns, assistants, to all who contribute - equal to their contribution and responsibility.Material, Technique, Stage and Costume design, Marketing Costs, Lighting and Sound design are important, but less than the artists and the staff - and all interns are part of the staff. And they do have to get contracts. It will be fine, if all theaters would come to an understanding about a minimum wage for the interns as well.