Union of Theater Interns

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.

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6 thoughts on “Union of Theater Interns

  1. Thanks for writing this. It’s something we’ve been discussing a lot here at the agency…that we need to provide something real for our interns, not just a line on their resume when all they really did is copy scripts and file. I think #1 is going to be hard but always love the idea of patronage…when I was at the Public I really tried to get them to go with the idea of “Modern Medicis”…for writers then but I think for other future theater workers as well. I don’t know if it’s a union…I would like to think that we might change the zeitgeist and core value systems enough where we don’t need them as much…but then I’m a hopeless romantic.

    Wish I had more time to read your blogs…I don’t have an intern at the moment though…xx

    1. I think it must be a change from within. I have no idea how an intern union would even form considering that one of the major purposes of an internship is to enter into that community. It is hard to form a picket line when you don’t know anyone to call to stand next to. I guess all of the intern coordinators could come together to write the bylaws on the behalf of future interns. But I don’t think it would ever happen because–having sorted all the applications that came into the Goodman for last summer’s session–I know how many people are willing to work for next to nothing, and how little pressure there is from without to change the status quo. They don’t really know what they are getting into (piecing together propaganda, gossip, and hearsay), and the shortness of an intern’s tenure contributes to the lack of personal demand for change. Then there is the fear that any complaint will destroy their chances of a positive recommendation, thus negating all the sacrifice they’ve already made.

      It is absolutely up to the institutions to be better.

  2. Your intern should learn how to use the copier.

    The way I approach working with my interns is that I’m doing my best to make sure they’re ready to be independent graphic designers. Each of them (I inherited one at the end of his term, seen three more come and go, and am now working with my fifth) has graduated from a four-year graphic design program but has had little real-world experience. It’s true, my interns frequently receive less-glamorous work, particularly at first. But even the less-glamorous work is still a tremendous challenge and opportunity to learn the fundamentals of design. As they get better at it, and faster at it, they get more and more responsibility. I feel it’s my duty to make sure they have everything they need to get a good job after they leave 11 months with me; that includes the fundamentals as well as excellent pieces in their portfolios. I want them to be able to walk into whatever place they go to next and feel like they can jump in and start, immediately and comfortably.

    So, yes, your intern should become familiar with the copier — it shouldn’t be the only thing she does for you, to be sure, but it’s a part of the job, and your duty is to make sure your intern leaves you able to do everything your job entails. Even if she doesn’t like doing it, eventually she’ll be glad she became good at it, and I’m fairly sure down the road it will be part of her feeling that she paid her dues. Take it from someone whose first job, as a 14-year-old, was at a computer store…cleaning six bathrooms a day.

  3. I am not sure I agree with the whole ritual of “paying ones dues,” Cheshire. Though I do understand the necessity of interns learning and performing the basics of the job they are getting an education in, less-glamorous work in our department involves collecting, fact-checking, editing, and circulating artist bios, NOT babysitting a sometimes cranky machine as it folds and staples 250 study guides. It is part of my job. That does not mean it needs to be part of hers. She will not be leaving our theater applying for my job. If a future job requires her to use a copier machine, then she can learn it at that job when she is getting paid living wage to do so. I agree with you about getting them to a professional level with their portfolios; I just don’t think “I can operate a Xerox20100” needs to be on their resume. Do you make your interns clean the bathrooms because it is how you made it to where you are? Because just because I weeded the Playwrights’ Center’s garden when I was interning at playlabs does not mean I sent my interns to go deadhead daisies.

  4. For the record — and for any prospective graphic design interns of mine who may stumble upon this page — I don’t make my interns clean the bathrooms. They ought to know how, though — it’s just a good thing to have in one’s arsenal.

    But I guess I do like the ritual of paying one’s dues, within reason — which, I suppose, is where the discussion of an interns’ union comes into play, though I’m not going to get into that part of the discussion. As I still have a few BAPF plays to read yet, I’ll just say this inelegantly and switch back to Acrobat: I like feeling that in getting where I am today, there has been no job too menial in my education. Even when the job seemed irrelevant to my future (I never put toilet-scrubbing on my resume), part of my training was to learn to do each job with thoroughness and attention to detail. I think it teaches both craft and a connection to a continuum that has life value.

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