A Manifesto for Theaters and Interns, Part 1

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The widespread demand for interns is a good example of just how valuable they are.

I received my BA in Theater and Drama from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. UW doesn’t have a large theater department, but my experiences were very positive. They provided me with a solid foundation in theater history, and there were forays into different design departments and some particularly memorable classes on world theater and modern tragedy. While I did have to read August Wilson’s Fences in four different classes, which has to set some kind of record for syllabus overlap, and I did have a directing TA teach my class that David Henry Hwang was “one of the major gay playwrights of the 1990s” (I wonder what Hwang’s wife thinks about that), overall it was a worthwhile program that emphasized text analysis and a broad, hands-on understanding of the elements of production. It taught me about theater. But it didn’t teach me how to have a career in it.

While my academic experience gave me a good intellectual background, it was strangely removed from the actual world of the contemporary American theater industry, the industry I was eventually hoping to contribute to after I graduated and which was really the whole point of my getting my theater degree in the first place. So my real career education, the part of the process that none of us are ever really done with, came from other, self-directed sources. It came from attending conferences, reading American Theater magazine, and being one of the only people buying plays from Barnes and Noble not by Shakespeare. It came from taking regular trips down to Chicago to catch important regional premieres or dragging my roommates off to local productions and debating the gender politics of Becky Shaw in our kitchen late at night. And, once I graduated, it came from the gateway that seemingly all young theater artists have to pass through these days, a period of internships.

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I have nothing against internships. Actually, I highly recommend them and consider them an important, almost mandatory way to get early-career job experience at professional theaters. I interned at two Chicago theaters, one midsize and one larger; both offered excellent professional opportunities I would’ve never had access to otherwise, and staff that remain some of the smartest, kindest and most supportive people I’ve encountered anywhere in the industry. But I couldn’t help feeling in both cases that something with the whole system was amiss. It wasn’t the fault of any one particular person or organization. From conversations with other friends and contacts whose experiences I’m also drawing from in making these assessments, it would seem that my internships were not all that different from anyone else’s, even if the structure of the programs varied from one group to another. (In fact, I seem to have had a much better experience than most of those I talked to.) It wasn’t any individual person’s or institution’s fault if things were amiss, but there seemed to be, in general, a flawed impression as to what an internship fundamentally is, what can be expected of these interns, and what the theaters owe them in exchange. And almost nothing was being done about it, because interns themselves don’t often have enough influence to change their programs, or aren’t in a place to pass analysis, however respectfully, on their theaters after being awarded what are often competitive and valuable positions.

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Chicago Shakespeare Theater offers a wide variety of internships. Other theaters with strong internship programs include Steppenwolf, the Goodman, Northlight, and Victory Gardens. (Photo: James Steinkamp, Steinkamp Photography)

So in this two-part post, I offer a hypothetical protocol for any theater hiring, or considering hiring, interns. A manifesto, if you will, to repair a broken system. Part 1 will focus on the responsibilities that theaters have to their interns, while Part 2 will focus on what interns owe their theaters. If you are an intern, feel free to share this series with your local intern population, bring it to your supervisor, or leave it passive aggressively magnetized to your office fridge. (Actually, don’t do that third one, although the first two would be cool.) If you are a theater professional with interns, please use this to keep your Millennials in line if their low attention spans and unstructured work habits start getting the better of them. It’s a two-way street, kids. (I’m allowed to make fun of Millennials because I am one.)

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Protocol for a Theater With Interns

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DO: Provide compensation for your interns. This is probably the most controversial one, so I’ll start with it. The weekly hours for most internships, counting work and research done outside of the theater, total at least the equivalent of a part-time job, if not more than that. While it’s technically legal not to pay an intern at a nonprofit, it’s wrong not to stipend interns for the simple reason of how transparently self-interested it is. Even small theaters, except in the most dire of circumstances, can perfectly well afford to stipend their interns and simply choose not to. And by stipend, I do mean just a small contribution — not a regular part-time or full-time salary — but one that would still validate the interns’ time and work as something of value (free tickets and industry discounts don’t count). Theaters that use interns invariably benefit from their often considerable work, and sometimes can’t operate without them. While most interns agree not to be paid when they’re hired (because they have no choice in the matter), the theater’s decision to withhold any monetary compensation is basically a way of admitting they are willing to cut corners any way they can, and since not paying younger employees is something many theaters get away with, it’s something they’re going to do, too.  It’s not malicious — most see it as regular protocol — but it has to change. In the odd case that a theater genuinely can’t afford a small stipend, quite frankly, they’re probably too small to have a legitimate professional development program.  There’s nothing wrong with being a very small theater, but if they want unpaid help, they should ask for volunteers. An intern is not a volunteer, especially if they had to beat out dozens or even hundreds of applicants to receive their position.

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DO: Have a designated intern liaison. Any theater offering internships needs to have an actual program. They can’t, as sometimes happens, simply let each employee hire their own assistants independently of one another. Someone on staff, likely someone in an artistic position, needs to be designated as the person to whom all interns can go to for guidance about their program, and who will regularly check in with them and their mentors to see how their experiences are going.

DON’T: Give interns jobs that don’t have to do with the theater. I never actually made or got anyone coffee during either of my internships (debunking what is probably the biggest stereotype about interning), but I think it’s fair to expect interns to cover these kinds of basic office housekeeping duties. What isn’t okay is when the intern’s job description is blurry. (I’m reminded of The Office’s recurring joke on job title semantics.) An intern should be there as an assistant designer, director, dramaturg, stage manager, marketer, etc. with either general tasks that keep theater operations running smoothly or specific projects that correspond to the department they are working in. They may function as a personal assistant on matters related to the theater that hired them, but not for general errands anyone needs. Theater artists tend to have multiple irons in the fire at once, preparing other productions, classes, or events elsewhere in addition to whatever is going on at their home theater. It’s not okay to ask an intern to help with these side jobs and projects, unless they’re offered as bonus educational opportunities and actually of benefit to the intern. Also, if an intern is regularly sent on errands that involve driving around town, the theater has to cover their gas.

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DO: Provide diverse, intentional educational opportunities for your interns. While learning by observation is nice, staff should consistently identify new teachable situations for interns after an initial routine is established. They should involve their interns in staff meetings, make sure they know the big picture of all the projects they’re working on, and allow them to be a part of some creative or business conversations (even if they have no real authority over the final outcome). Simply asking an intern what they want to do or if they have any lingering questions about their job isn’t necessarily enough, because they might not always know what they don’t know. A good mentor is aware of key aspects of their profession that their intern remains unexposed to, and then makes sure their intern has those experiences. For their part, interns should be proactive and not expect opportunities to just be handed to them. Another way to think about this is not to leave interns in protective bubbles — don’t shield them from the real and sometimes messy processes involved in staging a production or running a theater. For an intern to understand the full scope of what their industry is like, theaters must be willing to occasionally reveal some of their raw inner workings, even if these experiences lie outside of a safe and compartmentalized office routine.

By establishing reasonable, consistent protocol for all theater internships to adhere to, both theaters and their interns will get more out of their programs and develop even better art together. It really is a situation where everyone wins. As for the interns themselves, they’re not off the hook either, so join me soon for the second part of this series when I consider the list of expectations all theaters should have for the young artists they take under their wings.

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