Isaac highlights this article from the NY Times on unpaid internships in the for-profit world. Scott Walters has dug in deep on the elitist aspect of unpaid internships here and further here. Like Isaac, I have no issues with Scott's take on the elitist aspect and the geographical advantage (While I was intern, I worked a full-time job, but I did have the advantage of living at home). I'm unconvinced, though, by Isaac's claims of exploitation. Or at least that most theatre internships fail to meet the six requirements of an internship, as set out by federal government. Isaac lists them as such:
- The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
- The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
- The trainees do no displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and, on occasion, the employer’s operations might actually be impeded;
- The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
- The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time training. (Note that as an exception to this criterion, tuition assistance and nominal stipends for students are not considered wages).
The issue is that the Department of Labor does not want internships to be used to skirt minimum wage laws. We all know the nonprofit sector (or at least theatre) is rife with these programs. Yet we also live in a world where many theaters can barely afford the staff they do have. What is to be done?Internships come in all sizes and flavors, with, honestly, all kinds of names: intern, apprentice, associate, what-have-you. I've done my fair share, as well as my fair share of low-paid entry-level work. First off, it's all pretty exploitative. I have my doubts that any producing theatre organization in this country really pays minimum wage or pays any attention at all to work rules on overtime, comp time, breaks or just about anything. You show up when they ask you to show up and you leave when there's nothing left to do. And there's always something else to do. I'm not arguing it's a healthy thing; it leads to burnout, turnover and brain-drain. We would do well to reform our work practices. But that, alone, in my mind, doesn't equal exploitation.
And what of programs that aren't illegal but are clearly exploitative? I can think of at least one festival where you pay them to build their sets as an acting apprentice. Now, that's not illegal, but it certainly feels wrong in my book.
And, yes, a lot of theatres, including some I've worked at, certainly use interns to skirt paying for support staff. Interns are receptionists, messengers, janitors, sometimes exterminators. They are given crap work to do and told it's building them as an artist and a theatre professional.
And it is. I'm sorry. It just is. Being an intern makes a theatre person a better theatre person. It's an integral part of an education in theatre. Which is why it should be paid (or at least funded), it should be more open and equal access, and maybe a little bit formalized. But it is very much a reciprocal thing.
In a way, you can't have it both ways. An intern program can't be something available only to the elites, giving them an invaluable leg-up in the industry that less fortunate people can't get AND an exploitative "slavery" that benefits the institution to the detriment of the individual. It's one or the other.
I'm talking from my experience, now, so I don't have the charts and figures to back me up and maybe my experience is singular, but I've also seen this at work in practice. When you're an intern, you're learning the ropes, especially in small theatres. Everyone does a lot of different things and, even though you're mostly doing menial labor, there's also the opportunity to be involved in larger efforts, to understand how a theatre functions from the ground up. It's a ground-eye (and sometimes toilet-eye) view, but it's an important one.
Again, this is anecdote, not data, but data is sometimes...incomplete, isn't it? I did my internship at the Ensemble Studio Theatre and basically walked in off the street. Other people in my intern "class" had studied with members of the theatre or met them here or there, but there were also a few of us who'd basically picked the joint out of the phone book. My internship was spent answering phones, stuffing envelopes and serving as a house manager, precisely because I had a full-time job and could only convince my boss to let me out for one morning (the interns were supposed to do 8 hours at the theatre over the course of the week). But we were also given a workshop, a showcase and the opportunity to be involved in productions as assistant stage managers, production assistant, audition readers, god knows all what else. After my internship, I joined a writers' group at the theatre and four years later, I was on staff. Precisely because I knew how the theatre worked, I was part of the community, part of the family.
A lot of the other people I interned followed a similar path and I've worked with several of them since. Others went to work in other theatres. Interns who worked under me as a staff person had similar trajectories. At one point, more than half of the paid full and part-time staff of the theatre were former interns. This is one of the things that often gets left out of the equation. For a lot of theatres and organizations, at least in NYC, these entry-level volunteer positions are your foot in the door.
If we want to move away from specialists with narrow focus, internships are a key part of that path. I worked for a summer theatre with a large crew of interns and apprentices, who paid to be there, take acting classes and work in our scene lab. The students who did saw a 360 degree world of theatre, not just acting or directing or whatever their focus, but all of the parts that go into making a theatre work. Why shouldn't they? How would they build good, strong theatres if they don't?
I don't see any of this as exploitative. Maybe I don't because, you know, I participated in it. Maybe. But I think "exploitation" is not the right word for it. A lot of internships are abusive, that's for damn sure. But then again, pretty much all theatre jobs are abusive. Our entire staffing structure is based on the idea that, for the artistic staffing jobs certainly, people would be there for free, so paying them a small amount is almost a bonus. We work insane hours, for not nearly the compensation we deserve, under ridiculous pressures. My years at E.S.T. I worked roughly the same hours as my lawyer friend. He was taking home twice what I made before taxes. It's totally and completely abusive, sure. But it doesn't stop with interns. It may start there, but it doesn't stop.
By all means, let's try to reform the system, standardize it. Add some protections against abuse. But the intern system is the closest you get to a real apprenticeship in the theatre. Let's not lose sight of that.