Today I read about how Stanford is working on a new internet, one that scraps the old impossible-to-secure system and replaces it with one that functions with more safety but less anonymity. Last week I read about a movement to reinvent computers to better mimic the design of human brains so that they can function with more efficiency and fluidity. I think about my own brain and how much information it drops and I wonder if I would trust such a computer to correctly remember every word of a 100 page script . I had a long and interesting talk with Rachel’s uncle Norman–the inventor of SPSS and a man who, I think, looks at every problem on its own merits and does not fall back on ideologies–about Obama’s stimulus package and how it did not compromise all that much and will probably not work (but, he suggests, no one has any idea what is going to work). It seems to be a time of reinvention, and a time that reminds us that reinventing the wheel is avoided less because it is redundant and more because it is difficult.
I have been advising one of my playwriting professor’s current students on applying for an internship at the Goodman, and while I am giving her all the goods, I cannot help by hesitate in a thought: am I perpetuating a inherently flawed, if not unethical, system? My own intern at A.C.T. has been refreshingly vocal about her misgivings regarding dedicating 9 months of one’s young life to working a full-time job for very little pay, all on the promise that it will make her more attractive to employers. She joked last week of starting a Intern Union. I surprised her when I said I thought that was a stellar idea. She was surprised because, despite the fact that I was an intern 13 months ago, I have crossed over to the other side, the side that takes advantage of theater practitioners desperate to get their foot in the door. We have come to rely on this cheap labor to make our institutions run smoothly, and we have mystified the system as a rite of passage. We fool ourselves with the fable of the apprenticeships of the wrights, as if being a lit intern guarantees you a job in a lit office, the same way studying under the village cobbler guaranteed you employment mending shoes.
I am proud to say that my intern does not know how to use our copier. In my two internships I became intimately familiar with three printers, and by the end of my internship at the Goodman, people would seek me out to comfort and unjam–like the mouse taking the thorn from the lion’s paw–the overworked machines. Certainly a skillset I am happy to have; not necessarily the skillset I would have hoped to have taken away from 4 months in a literary office, for which I was paid, in total, $700. I learned many other things as well, of course, and I do not think there is any substitute for the education of being-in-the-room; when people ask if I recommend internships, I always answer yes. But the majority of the trust thrust upon me was knowing how to double-side print 30 scripts of the latest draft of a given play. So I am not going to force my intern near our copier until she says she wants to learn how to make 16-page booklet programs.
The paradox of internships is that interns are not trusted as employees because they do not yet have the experience, and yet they are asked to work like employees (on mundane tasks like stamping envelopes) and are scolded as employees when they screw up. They are getting paid the least amount of money to do the jobs that nobody else in the organization wants to do. Granted, it is not a good use of a literary manager’s time to print 30 scripts when she has a phone call with Naomi Iizuka and a meeting with the artistic director. Granted that after the intern prints those 30 scripts, he gets to deliver them to the rehearsal room where he gets to watch and learn. I am in no way devaluing internships, but abuses can and do happen easily, which is why I don’t think unions are such a far-fetched idea.
Such a union could be based on three basic principles: 1) Interns are paid a living wage; 2) Internships are understood to be an education, not a job; 3) The goal of an internship is to help the intern prepare for the next step in his/her career. Even though Steppenwolf pays their interns minimum wage, Principle 1 is going to be a hard-sell, especially now when the country’s theaters are cutting paying positions and remain on the edge of financial collapse. But just like dance companies use a patron system in which board members adopt dancers, would there not be board members willing to support the next generation of theater administrators? Regardless of the viability of Principle #1, Principles 2 & 3 cost little and are a matter of responsibility on the part of the institutions and the individual mentors. Interns can still be responsible for making copies (if you do not have the time to do it yourself) so long as 1 hour in the copy room is balanced by 1 hour of instruction.
So, if you have an intern, start with that. Treat them as equals but teach them as students. Remember that they are not there to make your job easier: they are there to do their job, which is to learn. It is your job to help them do their job.