Friday, December 6, 2013

That unpaid internship thing.

There's been some criticism levied against Emursive and/or Punchdrunk and/or Sleep No More this week because of a post advertising for unpaid internships.

For the record, I can't speak to the particulars of THIS internship, or how much anyone involved in the show is paid, or how hard they work (though it's very obvious it's a demanding show).  I have no firsthand knowledge of how they are treated, whether they are exploited needlessly or beyond the norm for the industry.  It's absolutely possible that they are treated more unfairly than they might at other companies or on other projects.

What I can speak to is my own experience and my own knowledge of theater and trying to build a career in the industry, particularly from the technical and design side of things.

I worked an unpaid internship.  Most people I know have, at some point, worked one.  They are so common in theater that it's practically expected you will take one at some point early in your career.  Mine was great because it provided housing* - not all of them do.  In fact while I was working mine, in the middle-of-nowhere Maine, a friend of mine from school was working one for an off-Broadway company in NYC without pay or housing.

There are high-profile internships out there that not only aren't paid, but require you to pay them to work there.  I was offered one once, while in graduate school, and I had to turn it down because I couldn't work for nothing, let alone pay more money.  When I turned it down, I was told point blank that since I was not getting my MFA from NYU or Yale, I would never work in New York City without their credit on my resume.  I cried, a lot - not because I would "never work in New York City," because I'm not one to buy into that - I cried because I WANTED the internship.  And it was mine, and I couldn't take it.

People want these things.  This is how many (if not most, if not all) of us build our careers.  And yes, a lot of us consider ourselves extremely lucky when and if we get them.

And if you google "theater unpaid internships," you'll find that some of the biggest theaters in the country don't pay their interns.  Yesterday morning I spoke to a friend who has worked at one of them for 14 years, and she confirmed for me that none of their interns, in any discipline, were paid.

The headline of the article above also expresses some degree of (surprise?) (horror?) at the long hours worked by these interns - as in 10 hours.  As a software developer, I worked 10 hour days.  As a master electrician, I worked 16+ hour days with very few days off.  And that's nothing compared to some of the bigger, more prestigious places that an early career artist might find herself.  And that's not unique to interns - that's the job.  We work long, ridiculous hours for very little, if any, pay. (Side note:  the intern says that her hours are 4pm-3am.  That's 11 hours, not 10.  Someone is making the assumption that she is getting a one hour break.)

I am absolutely not saying that unpaid internships are RIGHT.  They aren't.  And in many instances it's downright abusive.  I'm saying they're COMMON, the norm even.  I've heard a lot of people reply to this by saying that if people stopped taking the internships, they'd have to start paying.  That might be true, and maybe it's the "right" thing to do for the group and industry as a whole.  But it could very well be the wrong thing to do for your individual career at this moment.  A career in theater is built on connections and relationships, and the company you intern with might be where you meet that designer you've always wanted to assist.

Sleep No More didn't dream this idea up - neither did Black Swan.  It might be true that SNM's internships are more grueling than most, and maybe they should be called out for it, but every single one of us has some ridiculous horror story of what conditions we've worked in at some point in our careers.  Please don't make the mistake of thinking that this is a unique situation; please don't tell me that paid positions are everywhere, or common, or easy to come by, or will put me on the same career path.  And please don't think that we don't know what we are getting into, or that we aren't WANTING these opportunities.

The woman in the linked blog post above, the "luckiest girl in the world," writes "As a stage management intern, it'll be my job to run props up and down the six floors, move audience members out the way of choreography, and do rapid problem solving.  Before and after the show will be the standard paperwork and preset duties.  My hours will be from 4-11pm Sunday-Thursday and 4pm-3am Friday and Saturday."

Or, you know.  Working in theater.

* Addendum on my "housing" as an intern:  I was housed with two other people in the attic of one of the theater's regular patrons.  No air conditioning, in the summer.  At least three times while living there I had to catch live bats that had flown into our space and let them go outside (my roommates were actually shaking at the thought of having to help me do this, so I did it myself).  I was very, very happy to have this living situation, as I was allergic to the building where all the other interns lived.  I could only spend about 20 minutes in there before getting extremely dizzy and nauseous.  We all have these stories.

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