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Internships: Know Your Rights

As a graduating senior, much of my free time is plagued with worrying about how I’m going to enter one of the most competitive and difficult markets I could choose. One method I’ve heard a lot about yet learned little about is internships. I supposed there wasn’t really a huge amount to know – gain experience, connection with a company, enhance my chance of working with that company in the future, don’t piss anyone off, and probably no financial incentive. I’ve now taken an internship at Burning Coal Theatre Company down in beautiful Raleigh, North Carolina. A lovely little theatre company, one of the only ones in the area, and I’m glad to say I had a largely pleasant experience there. I was lucky to even get the position. My ideal was actually to work with the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, a company I very much revere and would have been honored to work at. I had contacted a friend who had finished the internship last year and asked about their experience, and despite their  slight disappointment in lack of direction and actual work experience, they were overall happy. But what I came to learn about theatre internships is that they are extremely competitive. Afterwards I called up BC and was fortunate to be let on at the very last minute.

I was extremely nervous about entering the internship because I had heard a lot of horror stories – people being stuck at a desk completing tedious tasks, learning nothing, the biggest connection gained with the Starbucks across the street. Believe it or not I actually heard an NPR story about accounting students going to China for an internship and being sent to a popular theme park to dress up as characters, housing fell through, and utterly mislead into a helpless situation. This is the extreme, but I get the feeling that I might even be in the minority of people who got to know a company, got offered some artistic work, learned valuable administrative skills, and came out clearly for the better. This is the reason why it’s a requirement for Theatre Arts majors to graduate, and this is the reason I am more than willing to look for more internships when I’m looking for work.

But in the last week I have reevaluated my caution-free willingness to become an intern. Two articles, Matt Bors’s Half Of Interns Are Victims Of This Illegal Act After College. It’s Really Not OK. (click bait UpWorthy title I know, but some great info) and Linda Essig’s Just Say NO! both confront the malpractices of institutions and ill-informed young people. The former is an extreme view of how unpaid internships shouldn’t exist and encourage legal action against those who abuse the system, and the latter is tailored towards artists, and how to identify and say NO to those who exploit free labor and how that will help correct the norm of underpaying artists for their work. Seriously, these articles, especially the second, are important. It’s an actual step young artists can make to reduce one of the largest problems in the industry. By just saying no we are able to take a stand against an assumption that our skills, which we spend just as much time honing as any engineer or mathematician, are of value. In the second article, he copies the actual laws according to the US Department of Labor of interning in this country:

There are some circumstances under which individuals who participate in “for-profit” private sector internships or training programs may do so without compensation.  The Supreme Court has held that the term “suffer or permit to work” cannot be interpreted so as to make a person whose work serves only his or her own interest an employee of another who provides aid or instruction.  This may apply to interns who receive training for their own educational benefit if the training meets certain criteria.  The determination of whether an internship or training program meets this exclusion depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each such program.

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Of course, this is not black and white, its a difficult line to tow. I know in theory I would love to reserve my art only to those who will value it enough to spend on it, but 2 years out of school with few major opportunities to express myself, I’m going to want to take any and every opportunity, paid or not. After all, this contradicts the advice to always show your work, no matter where, no matter for who, it only matters that you do what you love. It seems to me it’s a division between a community goal and the individual goal. By saying no to an unpaid “internship” with a company that will provide little artistic/academic/administrative/etc merit I make a statement for the theatre community. As quoted in the first article, the excuse “some industries would go broke if they had to pay for interns! – if that’s true, then maybe some places deserve to go out of business” However perhaps the opportunity would help me, and assist my individual career path. Unbeknownst to me, there is data showing that that is no longer a strong incentive:



Admittedly this is a broad graph, and I could not locate any data for theatre internships specifically, however I would not be surprised if it reflected similar numbers. After all, neither my internship, nor my friend’s at Lookingglass had any artistic component, despite our future plans. We would most likely need to go through the exact same process as those who didn’t have an internship.

So what does this mean for us seniors about to be released into a world full of companies trying to take advantage of free art? I think it’s important to know your rights and what is required of all companies. They need to be challenged if they are trying to abuse an already broken system. By saying no we empower the arts, we demand more. And if they refuse, say no. If they don’t refuse, make promises, and then fall through, they must be held accountable. Know that people have sought legal action before and won, cases are mentioned in the first article. I’ll leave you with the ending quote from Linda Essig:

No, I will not make your donut commercial for free; no, I will not play at your restaurant “for the exposure;” no, you cannot have my painting to hang in your home because your “important” friends will see it; no, I will not paint your set “for the experience.”What I will do is accept a slightly below market wage because I’m still in school and you’ll get what you pay for; yes, I will play at your restaurant for one night if you provide dinner for my family of six beforehand; yes, I will loan my painting to you for a fixed period of time if I am invited to the cocktail party to meet your important friends; yes, I will paint your set with you so that you can train me on a specialized technique with which I am unfamiliar.  Or, yes! I will gift my talents to you with generosity and an open heart because I love you, your cause, or your work. But no, I will not make your donut commercial for free.


PS – I’d be curious if anyone would like to share their internship stories, and if they meet the pleasantly and surprisingly specific rules.

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