AMERICAN THEATRE | The Theatre Industry’s Internship Problem

Note: Theatre Communications Group, the publisher of American Theatre, had an unpaid internship program until March 2020 that included internships at American Theatre. While this program complied with all legal requirements of internship, TCG is reevaluating the program’s future and doesn’t plan to resume it until there is capacity to compensate interns.

“Hi, Rosie! I’m surviving. The winter season broke me. The first month I didn’t get time off, and was pretty much taken advantage of a bit. When rehearsing shows, we work 12 hours a day, and the interns are stretched to the limits. We are offered housing, a bus pass, and $80 a week.”

I had contacted a former student, now working as an intern at a major regional theatre with one of the country’s most well-respected and prestigious acting internships, in hopes of sharing his experience with my current crop of students, who have been eagerly applying to internships themselves.

The message continued: “We are watched very carefully, and sometimes it feels a little imprisoning. I’m trying to take it as a learning lesson, and to not let this place take my spirit.”

This wasn’t a young kid whining about encountering hard work for the first time in his life. My student was an Air Force veteran in his mid-30s, an accomplished martial artist, and a recent graduate of an extremely rigorous acting conservatory. He was no stranger to hard work and discipline. The innate optimism and desire to learn that I remembered from the classroom came through years later in this Facebook message.

I was horrified and disappointed, but not necessarily surprised. After all, I’d spent my early 20s in callbacks for similar acting internships, where program directors sold us on food stamps as a supplement to the meager income we’d be earning, and still others dangled Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) points in return for thousands of dollars in “tuition.” During the internship I landed, I remember shaking after running my numbers through TurboTax. The company I was working for had misclassified me as a 1099 employee, and, as I was too young to be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, I discovered I was on the hook for $1,000 in federal taxes—on my under-$9,000-a-year salary.

These problems have historically been discussed among interns and former interns as a collection of isolated war stories, and largely ignored or minimized by artistic leadership. But Lift the Curtain, an advocacy group founded during the pandemic and in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the attendant racial and labor awakenings in the American theatre, aims to break this silence.

A small group of activists have seized on the industry-wide shutdown as a moment to instigate systemic change. They created the Lift the Curtain as a Facebook group and quickly saw its numbers balloon on social media, as former intern after former intern shared their stories publicly, many for the first time. In response to this outpouring of interest, Lift the Curtain put out a survey calling for interns over the past 10 years to record both quantitative and qualitative data about their experiences. A wave of responses poured in, resulting in a massive spreadsheet that includes information about salary and housing but also provides answers to open-ended questions like, “Do you have any comments regarding this internship specifically?”

So far more than 1,600 U.S-based current and former design, production, artistic, education, and acting interns from over 400 institutions have answered the call (as did apprentices, residents, and fellows—but because there is no standard, industry-wide distinction in the way these various positions operate, I’ll be using the term “intern” as an umbrella for all of these). The results provide a zoomed-out look at endemic trends, and heartbreaking anecdotes that illuminate these trends on a personal level. To comb through this data is to take a journey through the dark engine that for too long has powered the American theatre.

The 62 Center, where Williamstown Theatre Festival’s mainstage productions are usually produced.

The first and most obvious problem the document reveals is the question of wages. While most internships in the country provide some amount of compensation, 37 percent of those recorded were entirely unpaid, with a substantial amount of those unpaid internships requiring applicants to pony up as much as $6,000 in tuition, housing, and transportation. Those internships that were paid offered an average salary of $151 per week, and a yet-lower median salary of $125. Almost all the internships recorded were full-time, making these numbers red flags in and of themselves: $150 a week works out to $3.75 an hour for a 40-hour workweek, dollars below the federal minimum wage of $7.25, which was in place during the entire 10-year scope of the survey. Only 9.2 percent of salaried internships, and 5.6 percent of all internships, paid minimum wage or more.

And this is assuming a 40-hour workweek. In response to the general question calling for comments, there were 247 mentions of working unpaid overtime, with many interns reporting working 60, 80, and even 100 hours a week.

How to account for this? The short answer is that theatre companies take a variety of approaches to flouting well-worn labor laws in the bright light of day. Companies that pay their interns will often, as the company that ran my internship did, classify interns as independent contractors, a category reserved for true freelancers and independent contractors who work on their own time and provide a service to individuals or companies (think plumbers and therapists who work independently, or artists who sell paintings). In the words of the IRS, “The general rule is that an individual is an independent contractor if the payer has the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done.”

Labeling employees independent contractors puts the tax burden entirely on the contractor, allowing companies not only to evade their tax responsibilities both to the government and to the employee, but also to avoid minimum wage and overtime laws entirely.

Of respondents who had paid internships, 38 percent said their institutions used this tactic. A small percentage evade the same laws by misclassifying interns as volunteers or students of the theatre company, and labeling their salaries as travel stipends, scholarships, or grants. Still others pay entirely under the table. About 56 percent pay on a W-2, but are still able to dodge wage laws fairly easily because companies are only required to report wages to the IRS, not hours worked.

As for internships that don’t pay, the Department of Labor allows companies to host unpaid internship programs as long as these programs meet seven criteria outlined in Fact Sheet 71 (although the Fact Sheet specifies only that these rules apply to for-profit employers, the National Council of Nonprofits clarifies that it also applies to nonprofits). So are unpaid theatre internships perfectly legal? Not exactly.

Lift the Curtain’s survey indicates that almost none of the theatre internships actually meet these criteria, which include that “the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment” and “the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.” Clive Worsley (he/him), director of artistic learning at California Shakespeare Theater, which over the past five years converted all intern positions into staff positions, noted that the “staff” label has always been the accurate one.

“We were able to give them a certain amount of training,” said Worsley, “but on day one they were expected to be working. So while there were little bits of continued training and support, it didn’t feel as though we could really say that they were in a professional development setting the entire time.”

Cal Shakes is ahead of the curve. Mandy Greenfield (she/her), artistic director of Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF), has maintained that WTF’s now-jettisoned unpaid, tuition-based internship programs did conform to the state level version of Fact Sheet 71. When I read the state-level criteria to a former WTF intern, they agreed that WTF’s internship fulfilled some criteria but definitely not others; they laughed when I asked whether a WTF internship “provides the employer with no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.”

This account is corroborated by hundreds of others in Lift the Curtain’s survey, both at Williamstown and at theatre companies around the country. If one thing seems near-universal about theatre internships, it is that they are best seen as unpaid or underpaid staff positions operating under an industry-wide pseudonym.

Unfortunately, regulations governing wage theft and misclassification of employees are rarely enforced, and interns are young, vulnerable, transient workers with much to lose by speaking out (as evidenced by the fact that all of the former interns quoted in this article asked to remain anonymous).

“If you’re falling asleep in tech because you woke up at five to work before anybody else did and this is your second big shift of the day, but people don’t know that, you just look lazy.”

Low and nonexistent wages have a tremendous impact on young peoples’ ability to afford to work as interns in the first place, as well as their ability to maintain their financial, mental, and physical health during and after their internships. Most of the dozen current and former interns I spoke to for this article relied on some form of family support during their internship that they readily acknowledged as indispensable, and still they struggled financially.

A former intern at Marin Theatre Company, whose parents paid her car and phone bills, worked 30 hours a week for free at the theatre and an additional 25-30 hours, primarily in food service, to stay afloat. This schedule impacted her ability to perform at her best and to build a network in the way she’d hoped to.

“It was very difficult,” said the former Marin intern. “I was very tired all the time, and I think that made me look really not good to the people I was trying to network with and frankly impress. If you’re falling asleep in tech because you woke up at five to work before anybody else did and this is your second big shift of the day, but people don’t know that, you just look lazy.”

When she confided in her intern coordinator about the difficulty of juggling two jobs, he asked if she could ask her parents for more money.

Another intern, who said he relied on his aunt’s inheritance to fund an unpaid directing internship, still found himself without money to eat.

“There was a period at Great River [Shakespeare Festival] where I literally convinced myself in the living room that I didn’t have to eat for three days,” he said. “And then I was hungry 30 minutes later. And I was like, ‘Well, I guess that’s not going to work.’”

A former production intern at the Public Theater said they burned through $800 in spending money gifted them by their family during their internship at the theatre (which paid $125 a week, with no housing, for working at a theatre with an operating budget over $52 million), and added that their daily meal routine didn’t include eating breakfast.

“I went to the Public in the morning and drank coffee at the Public,” they said, “and then would get the man who ran concessions to give me bags of potato chips and hot dogs from the concession stand because I didn’t have any money. And then I would usually go home and make boxed macaroni and cheese. If I had not had savings already and not eaten meals, I would not have made it through the summer.”

One of the only interns I spoke to who did not have any kind of family financial support had to wait years after college to save the money to attend his pay-to-play program, and felt keenly that he was outside the norm. “A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, you’re a bartender? That’s crazy!’” he said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, you’ve never had a job.’”

For many would-be interns with no family support, unpaid and underpaid internships act as a massive structural barrier, separating those who can make it work from those who can’t.

The Public Theater.

While theatre internships are almost never a guarantee of future employment, they can offer a valuable way into an incredibly competitive industry. One veteran of five internships who currently works in production noted that for some positions, internships are the “only avenue to start getting experience, to start fitting into some of these job descriptions.”

This all but ensures that folks who can’t afford to work for little or no pay—predominantly Black, Indigenous, or people of color, or poor/working-class white theatre workers—will disproportionately be excluded from these foot-in-the-door opportunities, and hence from a fair chance to enter the profession. (The racial wealth gap is well documented; Black Americans, for example, have one tenth the wealth of white Americans, and are statistically far less able to source cash from friends or relatives in a financial pinch.) This has a pernicious trickle-up effect: In a moment when theatre organizations purport to be making moves on racial justice and representation, unpaid and low-paid internship programs ensure that the channels of entry remain narrow.

Some theatre companies, on the other hand, seem to view internship programs as a cheap way to diversify their organizations at the bottom while maintaining majority white and male artistic leadership, further entrenching historic racial and gender pay and power imbalances instead of rectifying them. One former intern of color at a major Midwestern LORT theatre reported that “this is the most diverse group of interns ever” was a common refrain from artistic staff, but so was “you are the most rebellious group of interns that we’ve ever had” and “you complain more than any other group.”

I spoke with several artistic staff whose companies have recently eliminated or overhauled their internship programs. Some seemed to believe that solving this problem of access is all that is required to solve the problem of theatre internships overall. Erika March (she/her), who served as Marin Theatre Company’s education manager from January to July 2021, offered that MTC was temporarily shuttering its intern program because of the company’s interest in making the program “more equitable.” When I pressed further, she forwarded my response to MTC’s artistic and associate artistic directors, who declined to comment.

WTF’s Mandy Greenfield likewise did not acknowledge any specific problems with WTF’s now-defunct intern programs beyond the problem of access, offering instead that she was “more familiar with how other institutions have run their internship programs.”

“I wasn’t a part of this organization for years in which I could really see firsthand,” she added. “When you come into an artistic directorship, you spend the first several years learning about the institution before you can figure out how to adjust the organization and grow it.” Greenfield assumed leadership of the institution seven years ago. But WTF’s labor woes didn’t end with the closure of its internship programs last year; while it instituted a new paid program for early career BIPOC artists this year, it also saw a highly publicized walkout of its sound crew due to low wages, long hours, and dangerous workplace conditions, which led leadership to improve pay and reduce hours.

To move forward in a meaningful way, we must reckon with the sins of the past, look to the future, recognize that access is only the beginning, and ask ourselves what exactly we are seeking to give young people access to. While paying interns adequately remains of paramount importance, Lift the Curtain’s survey also reveals immense and pervasive cultural problems that cannot be solved solely by raising wages. The words “abuse” and “abusive” show up 72 times, and “exploit” and “exploitative” appear 97 times. There are 42 mentions of dangerous working environments, 51 mentions of substandard housing, 21 reports of racist workplace culture, and as many reported incidents of sexual harassment. It is worth remembering that the survey only asks interns to comment generally on their experience, never explicitly asking about any of the above.

Interviews with former interns bring these numbers to life. A technical intern at Connecticut’s Sharon Playhouse was housed at a building known as “the Intern Shack,” which was “not entirely falling apart,” she said. She elaborated that “the rooms were big enough where you could stand and spin in a circle but you could not walk,” and “the bathrooms were sort of a part of the hallway.” Sexual misconduct also allegedly ran rampant and unchecked, she said, with one employee who had been “inappropriate with some of the women” not getting fired or disciplined but simply being the subject of a conversation with staff so they were aware of his reputation.

For many, their internship involved little work related to their job title. One directing intern at a midsize Shakespeare festival was made by a director he was working under to “get flowers for him, pick up dry-cleaning for him one time, drive his car to go run errands for him while he was in the room rehearsing.” As a producing intern at a major New York City nonprofit, he said he was expected to “wait hand and foot on the artistic director and her family” during an opening night gala.

“People who are interns tend to be treated with less respect than people who are employees because they don’t have as much recourse.”

Some interns saw a clear connection between a punishing work schedule and on-the-job danger. The WTF intern recalled at least one workday that started at 9 a.m. and went until 5 a.m. the next morning. “Everyone had a shift like that,” he said. He believes that the summer saw so many workplace accidents in part because interns were exhausted and overworked.

“One of my really good friends had a really nasty cut from working in the shop,” he said, “and it was, ‘Well, yeah, let’s take you to the hospital so you can get bandaged up and get back to work’—to the point that people joked about it. Supervisors were like, ‘Oh yeah, every summer gonna spill some lifeblood.’”

The Sharon Playhouse intern said her work schedule was “8 a.m. to midnight, 6 days a week, with our day off sometimes being filled with a four-hour workday.” After weeks of this, she said she went to the hospital, where she was told that she was overworking herself. But the theatre, she said, sang a different tune. “I was told it was very convenient that I got sick right around another load-in,” she added.

For some former interns, both these cultural problems and the widespread underpayment come from a “paying your dues” mentality that maintains that previous generations had it worse. The Sharon Playhouse intern’s supervisor found justification in her own poor treatment of interns because, as the intern recalled the supervisor saying, “When she was an intern, her boss threw pencils at her, and she was never as bad as that.” Another intern at a Midwestern theatre recalled hearing a running joke from artistic staff: “Ha ha, you’re poor. We’ve been there, now it’s your turn.”

One problem is that previous generations hadn’t been there, not exactly. While an unpaid summer might not have broken the bank of a college student 30 years ago, the situation is markedly different now. A college student in 1980 could expect to pay $800 a year to attend a public university; now, the price tag has jumped to over $10,000. Millennials and Gen Z-ers have correspondingly skyrocketing student loans and a diminished ability to save, at a time when rents in major theatre markets are exploding and lower wages have not kept pace with productivity.

According to other former interns, the culture derives from toxic individuals at the top and travels downstream. As one former intern reflected, “The fish rots from the head down. And that’s it.” Another described a “work hard and suck it up” mentality that pervaded the company they worked at.

“The culture really gets to most people,” that intern added. “When I left I was bullied. When the person left before me, they were bullied. It’s not just the upper management, it’s not just the producers within theatre. It’s like they got the interns to all bully this one person.”

Encouragingly, some artistic staff I spoke to seem willing to examine this culture.

“There’s a thing that happens institutionally,” said Cal Shakes’s Worsley. “People who are interns tend to be treated with less respect than people who are employees because they don’t have as much recourse. And also because structurally we still live in all these hierarchies. I’m not going to say names, but there was a former member of Cal Shakes leadership who called these people ‘intern’ instead of their names. Literally things like, ‘Hey, intern, get me a cup of coffee.’ That cannot be allowed to happen. If that person were an employee on the books, it wouldn’t happen.”

Kate Maguire (she/her), artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, had a definitive take on the ethics of unpaid internships: “Where I land on this is that you cannot have people working and not paying them.” When I pointed out that while BTF has made major strides in improving their programs, their acting internships remain unpaid, she reflected that “having this conversation with you makes me want to rethink that area too.”

A lot of rethinking will have to be done. How can theatre companies—always in a precarious financial position, but recently hammered by the financial fallout of COVID-19—afford to preserve early-career opportunities for young people while paying and treating them adequately? And how would interns earning a living wage impact woefully underpaid positions higher up the food chain?

Cal Shakes and Berkshire Theatre Festival, while admittedly financial powerhouses in wealthy areas relative to many smaller organizations, offer a hopeful outlook on this front. Cal Shakes’s Worsley admitted that “money money money” is what drove his company to continue their unpaid internship program for years despite ethical concerns, and that Cal Shakes even considered ending their education internships entirely rather than converting them to staff positions. Luckily, they were ultimately able to forge a “mutually beneficial arrangement” with a nearby university that gave Cal Shakes free space, allowing them to move money that would have been spent on operating costs to the creation of new salary lines in the education department. (Meanwhile, other Cal Shakes departments found alternative financial solutions to convert intern positions to staff positions.)

How was Berkshire Theatre Festival able to increase pay for its tech interns, offer housing, and survive losing the tuition dollars of 25-30 acting interns each summer? “We raised money,” said Kate Maguire. “I have found that when you sit down with donors and talk about supporting kids that may not otherwise be able to have such an opportunity, people are willing to give.”

Worsley’s advice to other theatre companies considering the same move is to “find a way to do it. If that means going to your board, or going to dedicated funders to find the money to do it, then do it. Even if it means taking a bit of a hit temporarily, I say do it because it’s the right thing to do, and I think that it will benefit your organization in the long run. I think it benefits the field in the long run.”

Maguire likewise believes that where there’s a will, there’s a way: “If you really sit down and start looking at the finances, the first thought may be, ‘We can’t afford to do that.’ But there are ways. And so you take out the budget form and you do it in a different way.” She continued, “The other thing about theatre is we’re always supposed to change, aren’t we? We change. So change. Just change”.

Rosie Brownlow-Calkin (she/her) is an Equity actor and assistant professor of theatre at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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