Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Scott calls it a plutocracy here, Isaac calls it exploitative here, 99Seats has a "well yes, that's what an internship is" attitude and Isaac sticks by his guns here.

Here's my job experience. Paying day jobs in Southern California (one of the more affluent parts of America):
  • Register at a box store for a way-above-market $9.00/hour, because it was a brand new branch in a nice new neighborhood
  • Intern (as an Assistant Assistant Stage Manager) for a Repertory Theater, for $150/week, which I once calculated as being less than $1.50/hour on average, sometimes more or less depending on rehearsal. This is one of the only paid internships I have ever seen in the arts field that was paying.
  • Popcorn salesman at a movie theater chain for $8.50/hour, but only because I worked until 3 or 4AM. I also got a second degree burn off the popcorn machine, which taught me what skin looks like when it bubbles; and I realized what it must feel like to be universally hated.
  • Intern for a software company for $17/hour.
Now, you'll notice two things. You'll notice that, as an intern for theater, I made pittance. And yet that is considered a great internship because it was paid. You'll also notice that as an intern for a software company, I was raking in dough. And I am far, far less qualified to intern for a software company than I am at theater company, because Stage Management is something I've done a lot a lot.

I am one of Scott Walters' plutocrats, unfortunately, there's no way around it, so his point stands.

But I guess what's being left out of the discussion between Isaac and J. is that the NYTimes article was about internships in general, whereas your discussion has been about theater internships. Do you know why theater internships suck? Because working in the theater sucks. You're talking about an industry in which the successful barely make less than half their income through their jobs.

My software company job (which I currently inhabit) considers me a steal at $17.50 for the amount of work I do. They have lately planned to make me full time, which is going to be slightly more money, and include benefits. And I'll still be one of the lowest paid employees at the company, of a company of about 140 people. Think of what they'd pay if I was qualified!

That's literally the one thing that not-for-profit means: it means that if you work here, you will not personally profit. You will get to do what you want with your life. You may find it personally fulfilling despite the hardship. You may, if you get really good at it, eke out a living. Or you'll do what I do, which is get a day job in a field where even the people at the bottom rung get paid quite well -- if you can (which goes back to Scott's plutocracy argument).

Suppose the state decides its going to enforce those internship regulations. You know what's going to happen? They're going to rename "internships" as "volunteer" positions, and nothing will change for us. After all, how many of us have seen a show by ushering for free for an evening? And nobody is going to bat an eyelid at a non-profit theater company taking volunteers. Hell, many non-profit theater companies are run by volunteers! (Some of my friends run a company called Eleven Benevolent Elephants that's been around for 3 years, and one said to me, "You know how we can afford to pay our actors and writers and playwrights? Because we work for free!").

When the crackdown comes, it's going to be at NBC Universal, which can pay its interns if it wanted to. I bet if they took the head of Price Waterhouse Cooper's salary, 30% of what he makes could go to pay the interns in his building living wages. (Don't run the math on that). It's not going to be at the Roundabout, or at the Public. Maybe Broadway will have to pay their internships. But unless the industry that the internships are preparing students to enter starts paying a minimum wage, interns are not going to get their fair share.

Well, they are getting their fair share. Their fair share of a shit pie.

It isn't that I don't have sympathy for the shitty conditions they work in. I have sympathy for the shitty conditions we all work in. But wringing hands about internships is really going after a trailing indicator of the fact that the economics of theater doesn't really work. And we knew that.

(Update: Adam Thurman puts his lawyer on hat to give us a right talking to on the issue. I guess I just wish I had the strength and skill to create that "strong revenue stream" he's talking about, as though those of us who can't pay anybody are just not trying hard enough.)


Scott Walters said...

Agreed with your overall point: the whole situation sucks.

That said, you have to attack the system at every point where it is exploitative. In other words, change happens incrementally, not top-down all-at-once. Internships are a dramatic example of the income gap that has become so horrific in our country. Is that income gap any different in the theatre? Not really. Check out what a Hollywood star gets paid per week in a Broadway show compared to the lowest paid person -- it isn't as big as the difference between the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and his lowest paid employee, but it is still pretty dramatic. And we don't bat an eye. How much does Robert Falls make a year at the Goodman, and how many unpaid or virtually unpaid interns are there working there?

Anonymous said...

Never said that people don't have strong revenue streams from not working hard enough. First, "strong" is relative and depends on what you want to invest in the art and the people making the art.
Second, there is definitely a skill element to it. It's like climbing Everest. You could try just running up the mountain, but it will probably kill you no matter how hard you run. Or you can learn from others, develop skills and then take a shot at it. And yes, the mountain may still kill you then, but at least you have a better shot at it.


CultureFuture said...

Scott - I agree with your point about the income gap. But the income gap is just as wide between a Hollywood Star and an indy-theater owner. I am all in favor of cracking down on internships on for-profit theater, and there's a few "non-profits" that probably should go by "for-profit." Even a place like the Public should be able to afford to pay interns something. But at the end of the day, if most theaters are barely economically stable as it is, telling them they have to pay interns will basically just tell them "don't hire interns." Maybe (as I sense is Isaac's opinion) that's better.

Adam - I see your point. It may be a sage one. I just don't have the patience to wait until I have amassed the knowledge capable to support a $100k/year company, and what I offer to myself and to the people who work with me is the ability to create the work in conversation with an audience that we've always wanted to do. The people who work with me accept that, and for accepting that they are equals in the company.

Scott Walters said...

I agree with Isaac.

We need to stop thinking that the arts are somehow special. If we are committed to economic justice through our plays, we should be committed to it in the institution. Right is right, even if it is inconvenient.