A Manifesto for Theaters and Interns: Part 2

Anticipating the behavior of your interns will help you identify who is and isn't a good fit for your theater.
Anticipating the behavior of your interns will help you identify who is and isn't a good fit for your theater.
Anticipating the behavior of your interns will help identify who is and isn’t a good fit for your theater.

In my last post, I established a few ground rules that all theaters hiring interns should agree to abide by. They were meant to improve the landscape of professional development in the theater, which can be both arbitrary and at times exploitative. We looked at the internship issue from the perspective of what theaters should do for the interns, so to keep it fair, this follow-up will address how interns should conduct themselves in these competitive positions, and what theaters have a right to expect from them. This is not one of those corporate articles that assumes Millennials are little fools who need a special approach in the workplace; I’m a Millennial, and back in my internship days the people I worked with were competent and organized and perfectly well-adjusted to the workplace. Many of these people are still valued professional contacts and also good friends. But once in a while, there were people who fell into the stereotypes. So this is an article on how—if you’re an intern—to avoid becoming a stereotype, and—if you have interns of your own—to catch that behavior in your employees before it has an impact on the productivity of your theater.

I present to you a Field Guide to Problematic Interns, and how to act instead.

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The Expert
The Expert is intelligent, charismatic and probably came from a university with an excellent theater department. He’s probably had a wide range of theater experiences already, and as such, he thinks he has the industry pretty much figured out. He’ll do what he needs to do, and is probably good-spirited about it because he loves theater, but he already has his career planned out several years or decades in advance, and considers his internship just a temporary stepping-stone before he goes on to something better. He is exceedingly particular in his theater tastes, and tends to divide the work he sees into categories of absolute love, hate and indifference—opinions he will generously share with those around him. This willingness to assume authority on any issue can work in his favor, and may even pass as industry savvy to his superiors, but he’ll need to experience some crucial mistakes and devastating moments of humility before he learns to open himself up to real growth as an artist (and not be a running joke to those around him).

Hobbies: insisting on the superiority of his hometown, referring to playwrights by their last names, mansplaining.

How to Act Instead: Understand that no matter how equipped your university was, or how entrenched in theater you’ve been all your life, there is always more to learn. Even people who have worked in theater all their lives continue to encounter new challenges, hone new skills or face general upheavals of perspective in situations they thought they understood. I don’t actually think The Expert’s attitude comes primarily from a place of arrogance, but rather, a place of eagerness and insecurity. The Expert wants to prove himself, and to demonstrate that he is capable in an industry he feels passionately about. But humility goes a long way, and the best artists let their work speak for itself.

The Guy Just Here to Network
This intern is stoked to be working at a prestigious organization. Or rather, he’s stoked to be at a prestigious organization, but he isn’t really interested in working there. He just wants to learn all about it, to get to know the staff, to bond with his fellow interns, to hear about their projects and talk about his own projects and to set up a time after work where they can get all together and talk even more. He’s got a few things going on at the same time, and makes it clear the internship is just one component of a larger career. He doesn’t mean to be negligent of his intern responsibilities; there’s just so much activity going on around him, so many references to gain, such a vibrant creative ecosystem all around him, that the mundane duties of his actual job are either boring or a distraction from the relationships he needs to gain a deeper foothold in the industry.

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Hobbies: arranging outings with fellow interns, office gossip, saying things like “I’ve been looking for a [actor/director/stage manager/capoeira dancer]. We should totally work together sometime!”

How to act instead: Stop talking. Go back to your desk. Do your work, even if it means silently looking at your computer by yourself for a while.

By all means, of course, go out of your way to be friendly and ask questions and learn as much as you can from your fellow artists. (If you don’t, you might end up as the opposite of the Guy Who’s Just Here to Network, the Stealth Intern, who works diligently in quiet anonymity but never forms lasting relationships.)  Just don’t let it come at the expense of your work. If you’re just there to get to know people, and not get to know the industry, it’ll be abundantly obvious anyway and only hurt your chances of convincing people to work with you.

The Single Bullet
The Single Bullet is a motivated, dedicated worker who knows how to structure his time and focus on the task at hand. But when he’s done, he’s done, until one of his superiors explicitly gives him a new task to complete. An enigmatic combination of productivity and obliviousness, the Single Bullet requires constant supervision. He lacks the insight (or motivation) to actively seek out more work on his own when there is nothing in his queue. Due to his efficiency, downtime occurs often.

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Hobbies: Social networking, texting, listicles, telling people they “did everything.”

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How to Act Instead: When you’re done with one task, let your superior know and ask if there’s anything else. 98.99% of the time, there will be. Don’t use excuses or rationalize yourself out of doing work just so you can waste time on the Internet. You’re cheating both the theater and yourself in the long run, so take advantage of this time to immerse yourself in new challenges. The “17 Things Only True Gilmore Girls Fans Understand” will still be there for you to read when you go home.

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There are stereotypes that Millennials are carefree, lazy and immature. But the pop culture image doesn’t always apply to real life. (Photo: HBO)

Concluding Thoughts
The reality is, problematic employee types appear at every level of the corporate ladder—they’re just more noticeable among interns because they tend to be less experienced and under more scrutiny. And it might actually be worse for more established artists, when there’s no one looking over their shoulder or willing to call them out on their pride, self-interest or complacency. Any advice for interns is really advice for all theater artists; the rules to the game change a little as you advance, but not as much as we may think they do.

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As for Millennials, there are few generalizations that can factually be made about an entire age demographic. Some Millennials are lazy, entitled or immature. Some aren’t. During one of my internships a few years ago, a staff member unexpectedly had to leave the organization, and his intern practically took over his position in his absence. We started a running joke that she was the “head intern” as she frequently occupied her old department head’s now barren office and became a primary contact for things normally outside an intern’s command. Without diminishing her excellent credentials, it wasn’t that she was more qualified than the rest of us, she was just unexpectedly thrust into a unusual situation, and instead of complaining about it — and as overextended staff members negotiated how best to divide up the unattended workload — she just did the work. She was positive. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do” was her constant refrain. Since then, she has worked at four other major regional theaters around the country. I have similar stories about other people I know.

Because that’s the simple antidote to all these intern stereotypes.

Show up.
Be open.
Be positive.
And do the work.

Isn’t that why you’re in the industry anyway?