Slaves Of The System And Our Expectations

Well The Guardian beat me to it. I was going to do an entry rounding up the multitude of discussions about arts internships, but the Guardian got there first with many of the links I bookmarked for my entry as well as some I hadn’t. Still, it is probably a sign of a discussion that needs to be had when so many people start to participate. So I take some consolation in the fact the internet is doing its job and bringing us all together.

Read as many of the blog links included in the story as you can to get the fullest picture. One thing I think got lost in the discussion. While it is illegal for for-profit organizations to have unpaid internships, according to the NY Times article cited, they aren’t illegal for non-profits because they are allowed to have volunteer work staff.

Now, whether unpaid internships should be illegal is another question. Scott Walters makes a strong case about how internships and the systems that value them, favor the affluent who have the connections and family support to secure good prestigious internships. I was ready to say it wasn’t so except that he essentially describes my college career arc. I worked to pay my way through high school, college and grad school and slaved away for free in the theatre during those times I wasn’t working or studying. I would say the only benefit I had over the person in Scott’s story is that I had a family that valued education and so I knew enough about basic networking to position myself for a good internship—a paid one at that.

Compare that to the daughter of a colleague who goes to an Ivy League University and recently decided she might want to get into arts administration and got an internship at Lincoln Center. Granted, her parents told her to take advantage of every opportunity offered, do whatever she was asked and not to even think about going to parties instead so she could suck the marrow out of the experience. I really don’t know if I could have gotten that internship as easily even having grown up in NY and having been involved in the theatre for a fair bit of time, but not going to an Ivy.

I am not going to rail as vehemently against the system as Walters does. Saying the affluent gain more advantages than the poor seems as self-evident as saying the public transport system of big cities provide more advantages to their residents than those enjoyed by suburban residents. That isn’t to say that people shouldn’t work to change the situation if they see an opportunity to do so. I have a lot of respect for the effort Scott Walters and Tom Loughlin are putting in to this goal. They started a blog separate from their personal ones, Theatre Arts Curriculum Transformation in which they discuss the current situation and how it might be fixed.

I thought it was very timely on the day we opened a show in my theatre about celebrity, Tom Loughlin had an entry on the seductive quality of fame. While there is some misrepresentation about arts careers by training programs, there is a degree of self-delusion that hasn’t existed in the past. (my emphasis)

“The young person who wrote this email is a very nice and very engaging student. But he is not thinking rationally. He is a victim of what I have come to call the “fame factor” in theatre education. It exists not only in theatre, of course, but across the culture. Created almost entirely by the pervasiveness of mass media, young people no longer pursue success; they pursue fame as well. The writer of this email simply believes he will be famous someday and win the Academy Award, and he needs nothing but the simple fact of his belief in that idea to make it come true for him (except maybe a little more help from me with his acting, as if I could make such a difference – another illusion).

I think theatre educators do not take into account the power of this drive in young people.

[….big snip….]

As educators, we should begin to recognize the part that fame plays in the lives of our students. We should understand that they are growing up in a culture where fame is glorified, and that their motivations for studying theatre are not necessarily the same ones that those of us of a certain age had as theatre students. Do we have anything at all to counter this rush to fame? Can we offer them any options at all for careers more rooted in personal self-worth as determined by their own values? Can we educate them for careers in the arts where they can be rooted in communities of people driven by motives other than profit and notoriety? Sure we can, but we have to have the courage to be the kinds of educators no longer willing to send new victims to be sacrificed to the altar of our adoration. We have to find values other than fame in theatre for them, and sell those values more strongly and convincingly.”

I know that I keep talking about the Creative Economy which is supposed to be the next phase of mass employment. There aren’t many overt signs of this coming to pass in these dismal financial times, unless you count the creativity needed to create all those awful financial instruments that brought this all about. One of the things Tom talks about in this entry is the idea that training programs are responding to fill a perceived need for a very narrow segment of the arts. Perhaps if training programs began to teach students about the alternative ways to employ the skills they are using, it could contribute to the development of the creative economy.

At this point there doesn’t seem much risk to pursuing this course. Is it that much worse to train students for jobs that may not exist in the future or train them for jobs that will employ less than one percent of one percent of them? Instead of chasing the areas “they” say opportunities will be, training programs can drive the creation of those opportunities.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment