A few years ago, a fellow stage manager who was a year above me in school remarked wryly, “When we graduate, we’ll have internships to look forward to.”
I smiled, but thought to myself that that’s a choice some people make, but isn’t the only option. However, lately while perusing job postings on various websites I am very surprised by how common an option it is. The majority of “management” positions posted on Offstagejobs.com are some kind of internship position (otherwise known as apprenticeships or fellowships), either seasonal or full-time. Whereas this used to be an option offered by a few of the major regional theatres across America, it has been a model taken up more and more.
The typical professional internship posting tends to look something like this:
Ideal for recent graduates or “early career professionals.” Work alongside professionals in your field, get hands-on experience, and develop connections that may help you get your foot in the door in the future. We may offer intern lectures and development sessions. Learn how a professional theatre company really works.
Usually fall through summer, though some are summer only.
Stipend: Between $90 – $150/ week (sometimes more, sometimes less)
Housing may or may not be offered.
Now let me be clear, in no way would I critique this model in itself. I think programs like these can be extremely useful, particularly for graduates looking to have structure and a more permanent position as their first endeavor out of school – especially if relocating, it certainly helps to ground yourself in the community first before taking on the uncertainties of freelancing. I know a few stage managers who participated in similar programs at large theatre companies and were absolutely thrilled by their experiences, and in fact are still reaping their benefits today. I have applied for a few professional internships for next fall. In addition, I have previously participated in Summer Stock-style internship that provided housing and a stipend within the range detailed above. I had enough money for gas, groceries, and the occasional adult beverage. I am quite pleased with the overall experience that I had and the benefits it provided me.
However, I do have questions about these programs’ seemingly increased prevalence and the ramifications that may have for my generation of theatre artists. Though the stipend may be enough to cover living expenses, what about paying off the student loans that helped you get your fancy BFA theatre degree from that prestigious university? The one that perhaps you invested in instead of choosing a cheaper schooling option, with the idea that it would help you to better secure your future?
It is also worth noting that these programs are often extremely competitive. That Bachelor of Fine Arts degree is often a baseline requirement for consideration. If you have professional experience outside of the university environment, all the better.
In his article last year on HowlRound, Unpaid Internships, or Getting Your Foot in the Door of the American Theatre, Greg Redlawsk discusses the prevalence of unpaid internships, as well as the huge role these interns play in most theatre companies.
“A sampling of some of the major non-profits suggests that there are at least, on average, 8 to 10 unpaid interns working at any given time in the average mid to large sized non-profit theater. There are over 300 non-profit theaters of varying sizes in New York alone. Even with conservative estimates, there are at least a thousand interns, (probably more) working tens of thousands of unpaid hours for the non-profit sector. … We’ve created a system that’s built on the backs of unpaid young people who just want to be a part of things.”
He goes on to conclude with a statement that resonated with me so much it almost hurt: “At the very least, this should be the baseline: nobody who is putting in forty hours a week or more at a nonprofit institution should go without pay or a living wage.” As an intern, I worked long past 40 hours a week in total service of the theatre, and the idea that it could be a baseline rule that I was paid a living wage for that is wonderful. …However, I was paid something. The two alternatives the author presents are sadly very, very different.
I think the most important thing to remember for those who may be considering an internship after graduation is this: know what’s best for you, right now. A professional internship may be the perfect fit for you, and also be able to work with your budget and financial abilities. You will undoubtedly gain highly valuable experience and make very useful connections, and the internship could lead to a job with the company in the future. All of this is great! But, an internship might also not work for you. Perhaps you can’t afford to just not-lose money. Or maybe your impulse is, I’ve spent the past x number of years at university learning how to do this particular role in the theatre, and right now I just want to jump in and try out some of those skills, outside of an educational environment. This is also great! Just because there are plentiful listings for one type of work does not mean that other opportunities do not exist. Know what you want, and seek it out! And if it doesn’t happen right away, keep trying. There is no need to set limitations on yourself that do not exist.