Encouraging Signs In Theatre Internship Programs

American Theatre had some encouraging news about a trend to improve summer theatre internship programs.  The need for this was seen last year as interns and other staff were walking off the job at some of the most prestigious gigs in the country.  A number of theatres are focused on making the experience more accessible, shifting from models where interns paid to participate to ones where they received pay as well as travel and housing.

Some programs are moving away from the premise that interns are a source of cheap labor and have redesigned the experience to focus on providing career training, networking and mentorship.

Gersten seems genuinely interested in providing hands-on experiences that are of primary benefit to the intern; the new program, she said, “doesn’t require their labor but does allow them to get hands-on experience. And the program combines time in an experiential setting as well as classroom time.”

Others have redesigned the application review process to allow for the selection of more diverse intern pools.

At New York Stage and Film, the application process itself has been democratized. Instead of one or two higher-ups reading applications, the company has “invited last year’s artists and staff to participate in the first round of going through applications, and of course they’re paid for each application they look at,” said Burney. He observed that this new process has “shifted the way people have access to our company” and “provided a deeper sense of belonging to the company” for its existing members.

Rosie Brownlow-Calkin who wrote the American Theatre piece notes that implementing these practices is something of a double-edged sword. The increased cost of providing a better experience means that fewer people are accepted to these programs. In some cases, this is a good thing because it allows for more one on one interaction with working professionals and hands-on experience on more meaningful projects. However, it also means fewer people are able to participate in what is viewed as an important career building experience.

Additionally, many of the organizations interviewed for the article note that federal Covid relief funding has provided for the existence of these improved intern programs. There is a very real sense that the quality of these experiences, if not the entire internship program, may be in jeopardy once those funds run out. When asked how they intended to sustain their internship programs, two of the organizations interviewed said they would ask their donors for more money which doesn’t seem to be a very concrete plan.

The fairness of these programs has been a common topic for my posts, so I am glad to see that theatres are giving serious consideration to the design of their internship programs. There is obviously more work to be done. Decisions related to these programs will be among the many needing to be addressed as arts organizations confront existential challenges of the next normal.

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/)

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.


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