Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How Long Must We Pay Our Dues?

(By Mike Twohy, 12/5/11 New Yorker)

Annah Feinberg's recent post in HowlRound, a theater blog I've started following, aptly articulates one of the main reasons why I decided not to pursue work in a theater: the plight of the "serial intern."  I haven't done as many internships as Feinberg has, but it doesn't take much experience in that world to learn that it's often a professional dead-end and an emotional quagmire.  As Feinberg puts it:

...the “dark side” of the internship has taught me not to speak up or make independent decisions, and demanded my gratitude for the privilege of having my intelligence and labor exploited. I’ve learned to accept whatever breadcrumbs I’m given. I’ve learned to apologize incessantly or, even better, shut my trap. I’ve become accustomed to working outside of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, and gotten used to sucking up sexism. Internships have been responsible for eroding my sense of my own value.

Without any real data (who'd care enough about arts interns to study them?), she also makes an educated guess that most interns are young and relatively privileged.  It's problematic enough that young people are exploited, but only some young people are lucky enough to be exploited.  As she puts it, "My relatively comfortable circumstances made choosing the poverty of internships possible."  Does this mean that the next generation of theater staffers will all come from the same affluence?  How will that affect the art we make?

Feinberg proposes a bold change.  "If a budget is the reflection of the priorities of an institution, it is time for a shift in priorities": fair (or some) compensation.  But at the same time, few artists, Feinberg and myself included, enter the field expecting to become millionaires, and every successful theater company was fledgling once, many of them started by frustrated young people like us.  It's probably only recently that theater companies started offering many steady jobs anyway.  Still, most theaters don't have the same slush fund as the examples she cites (though theaters that do have "official" internship programs tend to have bigger budgets).  And this recent post on Berkeley Rep's facebook page got me thinking that "throwing money at the problem" (to use one of those delightful Republican phrases) might not be the answer either:

Obviously, only a portionsometimes a small portionof a theater's income goes to the artists.  But Cole raises an interesting question: When does an administrative staff become a bloated bureaucracy?  Is that better than having lots of unpaid interns?  

Probably.  But I don't see the situation changing anytime soon.  It's a classic Catch-22: As soon as someone has the power to help young interns, s/he no longer has the incentive.

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