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Unpaid Theatre Internships & Jobs – Where to Draw the Line

March 27, 2014

I just finished hiring my staff for this season. Then I saw a ton of people posting an article about unpaid internships (http://creativeinfrastructure.org/2014/03/21/just-say-no/). I’m sure many who work in theatre will have read it by now. Not too long after I saw it, one of our summer directors emailed me saying that she had brought in a college student to assist her Stage Manager. This student had said she’d be willing to do anything at our company for no pay (the magic word “Free”) – basically an unpaid internship. My department has no established internship/apprenticeship program. All of the positions that I have to offer are paid and for a summer not for profit theatre position, it’s okay pay for the non-Equity contingent. We also provide housing. Depending on the skill level, we will provide training and mentoring to the younger staff. But the bottom line is that they are paid.

So when someone comes forward asking to work with us for no money, I balk at this because it could potentially undermine the other legit/paid non-Equity SM and ASM positions that I have fought long and hard to keep. I get nervous especially when I find out the Scene Shop staff was cut down to half its normal size. What’s to stop the company from telling me next season “Hire ASMs but we won’t pay them”?
After university, when looking for chances to further hone your skills in a specific area of expertise especially in theatre, the offers out there that will pay you money are thin. Most theatre companies/groups (mainly the small ones) can only survive with unpaid interns and volunteers. Like many of my colleagues who have commented on the article that I mentioned above, I too have lost count of the number of postings sent to me asking for actors, designers, and/or technicians to do something for free – and what they get out of it at least is exposure and experience – that’s something, right? No, no it’s not something. This is our profession that we should be able to expect to make a decent living from. And yet many are fueling these issues by accepting these “jobs”. The easy targets being those still in school or just out of it. I feel as if the educational community could help temper the situation by advising their students more closely and helping them do the research (why pay all that tuition if you’re not getting the proper guidance from those who should know the business that they are advising you in?).

For instance:
Job vs. Apprenticeship vs. Internship vs. Volunteering: Know the basic differences, understand the parameters you will be working under, and how you are compensated – and if you aren’t compensated monetarily, how are they compensating you otherwise? If you are working for no money, take a moment to ask if you are working alone. If you are working alone (with little to no guidance) for no money – you are essentially volunteering in a position that you probably should be paid for (after all, would you shovel a stranger’s driveway for free if they asked you?). If you are working with someone who is a professional getting paid to do this work that you are doing, it would be an internship/apprenticeship because you are learning from someone as you are doing the work. Not always simple to differentiate but those are the first questions to be asking yourself and the person you are working for. And if you submit your resume asking to work for no money, you should still ask the questions of what the company would be asking you to do. Also, regardless of being paid or not, you should always have a contract drawn up so that both sides understand what will happen (or not happen) – i.e. I want to assist in rehearsals but I won’t clean the bathrooms. Seriously, I know of companies that have their interns clean bathrooms in lieu of having a janitorial staff – run away from these situations!

I don’t hold anything negative towards this college student who is joining us (or anyone asking to work for free in return for experience). Fortunately, this opportunity that she will have with us will be a huge benefit to her given the nature and experience of the SM that she will be assisting. But I do have issue with companies (profit and not for profit) who actively seek people to work in positions that should earn money. If you are trying to fill a position, it means that you cannot function without that person present and so you need to pay them for their time and services. If you need actors to make your video – pay them! If you need someone to set up the stage – pay them. If you need someone to clean up at the end of the rehearsal, performance, etc. – pay them.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. The College Theatre Dork permalink
    March 27, 2014 12:25 pm

    Great blog post! As one of those easy target college students, I see far, far too many unpaid opportunities out there – the only reason I’m not going for them is the bottom line, I can’t afford to NOT be paid and/or housed. It’s awful turning down what could be amazing chances to work but a girl’s gotta eat.

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