How Much More Tolerance Left For Crushing Summer Internship As Career Starter

When I was an undergraduate, and even after I graduated college, I applied to work at the Williamstown Theater Festival, one of the most prestigious summer theaters in the country. Recent reporting makes me think I may have dodged a bullet when I wasn’t accepted.

You may have seen that back in July, the sound crew all walked off the job to protest long hours and unsafe working conditions at the festival. This week additional reporting by the L.A. Times revealed a greater extent to which these conditions existed, impacting the well-being of interns and apprentices.

Seffinger spent the summer rigging and focusing lights by hand for up to 16 hours a day. While crawling in the restricted space above a Williamstown stage to hang a power cable, he hit the back of his head on a horizontal metal support pole and suffered what doctors later diagnosed as a concussion.

He said he had been explicitly instructed during orientation to remove any hard hats when climbing in this area, or any stage space at height; according to Bagwell, Seffinger’s supervisor, the festival’s hard hats did not have chin straps and could potentially drop into the house and hurt someone. Seffinger used his own health insurance coverage for the hospital visit, otherwise, he would have had to pay out of pocket with no assistance from the festival. And he was ineligible for workers’ compensation, as interns were categorized as unpaid festival volunteers.

Those interviewed for the story cited fear of career impacting reprisals and concern about the strength of claims kept them from filing claims with OSHA and the state of Massachusetts. As well that:

Without money, major credits or other benefits to fall back on, young theater artists were not in a position to speak up against safety issues, overwork or lack of opportunity without risking retribution. Those who did make in-person complaints to supervisors and schedulers were either ignored or instructed to grin and bear it,…

One woman interviewed for the story said her parents took out a loan to cover the $4000 apprentice program fee which was supposed to provide her education and experience toward an acting career, but required so much work from her that there were no opportunities to learn or perform.

It was made clear that “festival needs” — a shorthand for the litany of tasks required by the star-studded marquee productions — came before any educational or creative opportunity. Many times, Ayala found herself ditching her acting classes to save her energy for her next shift or recover from her last one.

“It was hard when the projects that were supposed to be my opportunities felt like the bottom of an endless list of tasks,” said Zeftel. “No one has time to be a collaborative artist because they’re being utilized as cogs in the machine to make the festival’s biggest priorities happen.”

Apprentices’ chances to act were scattered across smaller, one-night-only projects that rehearsed and played at odd overnight hours, but they could do so only if they weren’t assigned to other, more menial tasks. Three sources told The Times that it was not uncommon for an apprentice to go an entire summer without acting in anything.

I definitely worked long hours for little pay at summer theaters, (as well as year round theaters, for that matter), and while the culture has long demanded that the individual subsume their lives to the needs of the production, I was never in a situation as bad as described in these articles.

I was certainly miserable at times. When the conversation about kids today needing to pay their dues, I don’t wish the same experience on others. Learning the ropes of any job will always be difficult and frustrating. Just as we need to let our physical body rest to recover from endurance and strength building exercise, so too do we need emotional and mental rest so we can develop and employ our additional capacity.

As business journals try to analyze the motivations behind the current Great Resignation, it would behoove the theater world to note that people have left jobs that were far less onerous than the internship/apprenticeship conditions that exist. If any sector needs to change their business model quickly to respond to the times, it is arts and culture.   These practices were never the most constructive element in the career pathway in the best of times, it would be surprising if they remain viable at all going forward.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the 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.

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