Unpaid Internships, or Getting Your Foot in the Door of the American Theater
In the wake of the death of a camera assistant on a film shoot in Georgia, there’s been plenty of reflection in the film industry regarding the conditions under which crew members perform their duties. I keep reading these articles and thinking about how it all relates to the theater world and, in particular, the nonprofit system of New York City. Our circumstances certainly aren’t identical to those in film, yet there are a lot of problems with entry-level positions in many aspects of our industry. We could do with a little reflection.
What simultaneously impresses and upsets me is the fact that my generation (myself included) seems willing to do almost anything to work with or alongside the established theaters in the city. Yet, for the most part, the doors are heavy and difficult to open. There’s precious little paid entry-level work for aspiring artistic administrators, and for the actors, directors, playwrights, and designers, it can be even worse. There’s been a ton of ink devoted to this question: how can young people make a living in today’s theater?
For the most part production assistants (PA) in the theater are asked to take fewer physical risks than our counterparts in film, there are fewer direct occupational hazards (although there certainly still can be danger). Instead, we mainly fear the cost of living, the cost of working double-digit hours a day during tech week while making fifty dollars a day, all the while trying to brave finding an apartment in the city without a trust fund to fall back on. The psychological toll can be powerful. The practical effect is even more significant such a system invariably favors those who have independently wealthy means and creates an elitist stratification. We hear theaters talking about diversity all the time, yet they carry out practices on the most basic level that make it almost impossible for those who come from lower socio-economic situations (or have parents who refuse to pay the bills) to break in to the field.
Production assistants provide essential services to theaters and yet are often struggling just to get by. It can be difficult for PAs to assert themselves in the workplace; we’re viewed as expendable. There are a lot of young people trying to work in this business, and so if a PA makes waves or causes trouble, they can be very easily replaced. In my own experience, I’ve had difficulty with things like getting contractually guaranteed overtime pay. If you push too hard, sure you might eventually get that extra two hundred dollars in your paycheck, but you’re putting in jeopardy the possibility that you might get hired back by that theater in the future. They can find someone else who won’t be so ‘pushy’ to do the job. It’s this same mindset that can lead to young PAs putting themselves in physical danger. You get asked to do something backstage you may not be comfortable with; yet again you fear asserting yourself, so you just go with it and hope for the best. Under these circumstances, it’s only a matter of time until an overworked or underprepared PA ends up getting hurt.
Then, thinking about internships in particular, there’s the very basic issue which hasn’t gotten as much press in the theater world as I would have expected, although unpaid internships in other fields have been explored by mainstream media outlets. Many of the unpaid internships in the non-profit institutions are blatantly illegal, a fact underscored by a recent ruling by a Federal District Court in Manhattan. According to the department of labor, for an unpaid internship to be legal, it must follow a number of guidelines. I’ve listed the two that are most commonly broken below:
1. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
2. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
At a number of institutions, the roles interns now occupy were at one time fully staffed positions, which is an obvious violation. Many internships require interns to work upwards of thirty or even forty hours a week—all of it unpaid labor. It’s also clear that many of these internships are running afoul of this second tenet. Unpaid internships are supposed to be about training, education, and be for the benefit of the intern, not the institution. Yet imagine if theaters suddenly lost all of their interns? Who would be doing all of that grunt work? Here’s the (slightly altered to maintain anonymity) description of an unpaid literary internship with a prestigious non-profit:
Literary Interns read scripts, write reader reports, attend readings and productions to scout for emerging writers, help coordinate audience engagement initiatives, maintain the script database, manage our reader's group, and, on occasion, correspond with writers regarding individual works. Literary interns also help prepare dramaturgical support materials for our season productions.
This sounds like a job, not an internship. Is there room for education and hands on learning? Absolutely. However, the vast majority of the work required is essential to that theater’s mission. For example, what would a theater that actively pursues new and engaging work do without someone to update their script database and oversee submissions and readers? The work is necessary, and yet the intern is paid nothing for their time and effort. It’s important to note that there is no union for interns or PAs. There is no contractual protection. While no organization (not even TCG) seems to collect data regarding the number of unpaid interns or PAs working in the non-profit sector in NYC, we can assume just about every production at a major non-profit has at least one PA on board.
A sampling of some of the major non-profits suggests that there are at least, on average, 8 to 10 unpaid interns working at any given time in the average mid to large sized non-profit theater. There are over 300 non-profit theaters of varying sizes in New York alone. Even with conservative estimates, there are at least a thousand interns, (probably more) working tens of thousands of unpaid hours for the non-profit sector. There are hundreds of PAs. We’ve created a system that’s built on the backs of unpaid young people who just want to be a part of things.
PAs and interns are essential to the operation of institutional theaters.... They deserve protection; interns deserve and are legally required to be paid.
Look, we all know that many theaters are hurting financially. Costs are rising and there’s worry about sustaining current audiences while developing new ones. The truth is, though, that PAs and interns are essential to the operation of institutional theaters. Few, if any of those who take on PA type positions aspire to be career Production Assistants. These are the artists and technicians who will be running the theaters in the future. They deserve protection; interns deserve and are legally required to be paid. With some financial security hopefully production assistants will feel more comfortable standing up for their health and wellbeing in the workplace, and will be able to pay their rent. It’s a simple way of looking at a complex and nuanced issue (and the how is definitely up for debate), but at the very least, this should be the baseline: nobody who is putting in forty hours a week or more at a nonprofit institution should go without pay or a living wage.