Wednesday, April 09, 2008

On Internships and Arguments at Dramaturgy.net

I subscribe to the dramaturgy.net listserv, and I think everyone should as well. Well, maybe not everyone -- that would be bad -- but everyone who is interested in dramaturgy and literary management issues and general theatre topics with an intellectual-cum-philosophical bent.

That said, did everybody catch the back and forth that went on and on about internships and whether the American theatre -- as if it were some monolith, which it isn't -- is essentially cruising along on the free or very low paid efforts of internships while artistic directors, particularly top-tier artistic directors, cruise along on comfy and cushy six-figure salaries?

First of all, this was news? Really? My God, I was an intern to the propmaster at Playwrights Horizons in the summer of 1985 and I knew it was all sort of silly nonsense so that the likes of Andre Bishop and Ira Weitzman could make a living. And I, being 17 at that time, totally bought into the idea that by being an intern, I would get good experience doing (or at least witnessing) professional theatre and would begin to make the kinds of contacts and form the different kinds of relationships that would enable my career, whatever it would be, to hop, skip and jump along.

The debate at dramaturgy.net was really about class, and when I'm done explaining my own particular take on this, I'm going to reprint, below, some of the more choice posts because I do think they're provocative and, at times, awfully funny and maybe, forgive me, don't hate me, a little bit naive.

Look, if one wants to play the class card, that's fine. But let's also be clear: If a top-tier artistic director is making, as I said, a comfy-cushy six-figure salary, that's because he/she receives it with the advice and consent of the board. The bigger the company, the bigger the board (for the most part), and that means even more people are on board for the fiscal structure. So if you do want to place the blame someone, don't go marching on the Winter Palace demanding to talk to the Tsar. Get pissed off at the Duma.

On the other hand -- yes, Virginia, there's another hand -- those who come down on the side of placing a value on work, no matter how low level or entry level, have legitimate point. It's one thing when you're 17 and in high school and wanting to get your feet wet. I mean, I didn't want to be the intern to the propmaster -- I won't tell you his name, but he was a total jerk to me and I'm glad I've never had the misfortune to encounter him professionally since then. And, in fact, I wanted very much to be one of the literary interns, and since I wasn't some Benetton-wearing bitch from the Upper East Side, cavorting with my BFF's Bipsy and Bopsy and Boopsy and Moe, I had to settle for chilling in the chilly basement of the old Playwrights, watching 200 sheets of styrofoam get turned into the set for a quirky musical called Paradise, which had a book by a then-unknown author named George C. Wolfe. The point is, I was 17, what the hell are you going to do?

When, however, you're out of college with a BFA, or worse, out of graduate school with an MFA, the notion of asking someone to be intern and work for either nothing or very, very little is dumb and demeaning and ultimately indefensible. Well, it's defensible if you decide to fully buy into the current nonprofit theatre infrastructure and superstructure. But the notion that somehow being a post-graduate intern for $100 a week or whatever -- and likely going into debt just to have the privilege of reading some pile of ca-ca poo-poo scripts -- is demoralizing and it also cheapens the value of work. By work, by the way, I don't mean "the work," in the sense of theatre. I'm talking about work in the sense of earning and expecting a fair day's wages for a fair day's work.

Oh, I know, I know, now all the nonprofit cheerleaders, the people without the courage the up-end the current structure, will boohoo and hiss and cry and wail and go on and on about how little money there is. You know what? I know how little money there is, baby. But when some people say, Hey, why is that artistic director making $300K when there are interns armed with MFAs who aren't making $500 a week, you can't argue that there's something inherently awful and destructive and dysfunctional about that system. But again, that $300K, or whatever it is, is signed off on by the board, so everyone has to wake up, stop bullshitting, and start to take a little responsibility -- or at least put their disingenuousness on a shelf and let it gather some dust.

OK.

Now, here are some of the more interesting posts from dramaturgy.net. I'm not using names. Oh, and if anyone is pissed that I'm publishing these, sorry. Again, I'm not using names. And if you believe in the power of your convictions, you have nothing to fear.

This is in response to someone talking about Mike Daisey's argument, which I also don't buy, that the regional theatre movement was created only to house resident companies and should get back to that, or else we should overthrow the whole system and find some other way to make theatre, which I also don't think is remotely realistic:

I don't think you're interpreting Daisey correctly here.

By what logic should a person running an enormous company that is hugely successful make what a "median" person makes in his zip code? I'm baffled. 55k would not support an executive in that area. I would wager that NONE of the artists who work regularly at Roundabout make that little.

But in any case, the notion that a person at the top should make what a person who happens to live in the area makes is a premise I don't understand. Compensation is based on work and worth, not mere vicinity.

Roundabout has never had a resident company. Not all theatres have had. I too would like to see the return of resident companies, but there are many reasons they aren't always sustainable. I think few actors of the calibre who work at Roundabout would be willing to sign on to a resident deal, not when there's so much work in the area for them.

Similarly, few if ANY theatres in the US are actually "repertory" theatres, except for a few Shakespeare Festivals in the summer. Compare and contrast theatres in Prague, where resident companies learn a show and then perform it a few nights in a month for years. It's a great system, but so different from ours that it just can't be put into place here (at least, those who have tried, have failed). Ballet and Opera companies do work this way, but theatres have not succeeded. The reasons for this are many and do not boil down to "the people at the top are overpaid."
This was written by the same person, regarding internships:

1. Philosophically, at least, a university education is not the same thing as a trade school. Education is an end unto itself. At college, I took classes in Classics and English (my majors). I also studied Arabic, Irish, Humanities, Logic, Computer Science, Human Biology, Acting, Playwriting, Italian, Chinese Philosophy, Communications. All of my classes were taught by experts, some from world-reknowned professors. Classes don't and needn't lead to jobs. For that, there are internships and summer jobs and extra-curricular activities.

2. We live in a society where a BA has become a requisite for most entry level white-collar jobs. There are few exceptions. Without a college degree many doors of opportunity close. Of course, if a person knows as a teenager he/she wants to perform, a conservatory may be just as appropriate. Still a "terminal" degree is a necessity -- unless performance is the ONLY goal.

3. Debt accrued in college is tax-deferrable. It's just different than other kinds of debts. In addition, most colleges provide financial aid that enables a student to live and eat, at the very least. Many top schools have recently widely cut back tuition for middle-class families. Stanford just completely eliminated tuition for all families making less than 100k per year, and slashed widely above that. The bang for your buck is far greater at the university level.

4. An internship is the equivalent of taking one or two classes, with no opportunity to branch out. That is why when students get credit for internship they usually are the equivalent of just one or two classes. They are simply not comparable to a university degree.

5. Finally, interns are unpaid employees. Students are not. When they work on campus, they can and should take a customer-service attittude to their employers, but to suggest that they do this to their professors is ridiculous and leads to the kind of excesses where students think they can select what they will or won't read on a syllabus (it's happened to me; I fought and won). While interns also learn on the job, they are also providing services. The relationship is not comparable. Some theatres... don't have interns, but have a young company of M.F.A. students, and some M.F.A. in business students. You could compare a program like that to a university experience, certainly. But not, I think, an internship.

Universities are also not-for-profits, but to suggest that a student in class is comparable to a person doing an (unpaid) job is a poor analogy.
Now, here's a comment I thought was pretty intriguing and provocative:

….Why shouldn't people be able to make a living in the arts?

Actually, it's a bit depressing that the AD of Actors Theatre makes so little. And it really is little, considering it's the top position at a major arts organization. Why on earth shouldn't theatre professionals aspire to having a decent middle-class life and sending their kids to college?

I don't know why Todd Haimes' salary is so high but it may be right in line with what ADs in that very expensive city make.

Don't get me wrong, I think interns should be housed and stipended-- enough to buy food, at the very least. And I don't think theatres should organize themselves so that interns really become an unpaid army of workers (something that in the past, anyway, seemed to be the case at ATL). But at their best, internships provide real-life full-time professional experience that is invaluable. Unfortunately, we do not have government subsidies in this country that pay for the "assistant director" positions so common in the UK, entry-level positions for talented directors that make the equivalent of about 22k a year. It would be great if we did. But then, it would be great if regional theatres were more sincerely interested in developing and exposing young talent (apart from acting and writing) overall.

The young director of "Sunday in the Park with George" simply would not have had that opportunity at the Roundabout had he not come from Donmar Warehouse, and he would not have been at the equivalent of Donmar Warehouse (say, Playwrights Horizons or MTC) for at least another 5 years and probably more like 10.

I'm not in my 20s anymore (sob) but I think it's still way too proprietary by oldsters. I can't think of one AD of a major theatre under 30. Can't think of too many under 40.

And I do think this has some bearing on the internship issue, because if the people who ran the theatres seriously thought they were developing colleagues and talent they would be far less dismissive and you'd hear fewer horror stories.

I've experienced both ends of the coin-- at A.R.T., they manged to make three typos in my name (which only has 8 letters), provided no subsidy or housing, went out of their way to teach me-- not much. At the Old Globe, I stayed in actor housing until I found a place. I was lent a scooter to ride back and forth to work. I got Equity points and on opening night Jack O'Brian gave EVERYONE, including me, a rose. It made all the difference in the world...

On a personal note, does anyone not think Jack O'Brien is the kindest man ever? What a class act. Just adore him.

I liked this short but to-the-point comment about internships:

maybe the time has come for ethical theatres to ELIMINATE the whole practice of unpaid internships and have plain old fashioned part time jobs at something above minimum wage.

as for ad salaries, I firmly believe that's another issue entirely. if we want great managers they need to be appropriately compensated.

I suspect if theatres had to pay apprentices 12 dollars an hr the apprentices would learn more and get more respect, not to mention self-respect.
Here's another short one that I thought was well done:

I don't think that arts not-for-profits are the primary culprits here, but we have stumbled on one of the major debates/issues of our current iteration of late-period capitalism: the ethics of executive salaries. We currently measure success and "importance" by salary in this country and executives across the board now make exponentially more than their workers. The level of this disparity is new and is increasing.

Is it ethical to make a wealthy person's salary on the backs of employees who can hardly pay their bills? It's an important question, not just for the theatre but for the nation and the transnational economy of which it is a part.

And here's one where you can fairly see a fist raised:
I think this is an important discussion. There are clear indications to me that not-for-profits and arts organizations have fallen into bad practice by following corporate models…evidence supports this idea in a highly empirical way.

And, of course, the leaders of our regional theaters deserve to make a living, and even a good one, but definitely not at the expense of:

A: the theater workers (because THEY deserve to make a living as well)

B: the work itself.

C: affordable ticket prices

Points A and B and C become harder to achieve if the AD is making a disproportionate amount of money. And if people can't see that, I really don't know what they are looking at.

rock on
Yeah!!

And I think this is just poetic and perfect:

Do other professions expect young people to work without pay? Do other industries expect inexperienced employees pay room and board to their employers?

These are sincere question. I have worked in publishing which also pays little to young hires, but at least pays something. We never had anyone work for free. But maybe times have changed.

Do other types of business expect free labor from those workers who are just starting out?

I know that the arts are underfunded and that most arts organizations are just one step ahead of bankruptcy. Probably most organizations that can pay their interns, do so.

To say that this situation is just or fair--or even to say that it is tolerable is plain silly. Obviously it drives many gifted young artists to the edges of the theater world. Some it drives out completely.

The expectation that people in their early twenties will have either the spare cash or enough credit to borrow money is just a rationalization to avoid feeling guilty about a situation one is powerless to fix. (Student can take out student loans; interns will get stuck with subprime loans.)

I think that this situation is one reason why there are so few underclass voices in theater. Rarely do you see a portrayal of poverty or even just ordinary hand-to-mouth existence on stage that is remotely convincing. Of course, drama has always had an interest skewed toward the upper classes, but even when you see the lower-middle class or poor represented on stage, they are usually seen from an outsider perspective.

S.J. Perelman/s observation that if you scratch an artist underneath you will find
money from home seems to be increasingly true.

Oh, S.J. Yes!

And now for something completely the same:
Alas, the situation we're discussing - the low pay for theatre artists – is not decided by some authority over what's just and unjust. It's decided, if that is the word, by the marketplace... where there are simply more people interested in theatre work than jobs available, a greater supply than demand. If Wall Street firms could get young people to work there for free, believe me, they would do so. They pay what they have to pay. But in theatre, there are more people clamoring for the work, paid or not.

Regarding Todd Haimes: when he took over from Gene Feist, the Roundabout was a joke, a little off-Broadway house that did musty old productions of classics, not taken seriously. Regardless of what anyone here thinks of their work, Haimes put them on the map - with glitzy, much-publicized productions, star actors and tremendous growth of income. That's why he gets so much money - because he's worth that much to the company.
Sigh.

And now, a little intellectualization (this is great):
I think this article by my friend David Graeber might help shed a little light on the recent intern discussion. It's in its original form here:
http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/01/0081344

And transcribed here, as text:
http://www.sleepykid.org/blog/2007/01/13/army-of-altruists/

Graeber's basic argument is that, contrary to the popular belief that we Americans are a bunch of selfish, rapacious assholes, we actually have a burning desire to do good, one that is continually frustrated by the realities of our capitalist, bureaucratic system. In part, he uses his model to explain the culture wars:

"*Why do working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich? It seems to me that the answer is simple. They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia. If you think about it, this is not an unreasonable assessment. A mechanic from Nebraska knows it is highly unlikely that his son or daughter will ever become an Enron executive. But it is possible. There is virtually no chance, however, that his child, no matter how talented, will ever become an international human-rights lawyer or a drama critic for the New York Times. Here we need to remember not just the changes in higher education but also the role of unpaid, or effectively unpaid, internships."

As for the "executive salaries vs. internships" argument, the notion that high salaries somehow induce competence are, prima facie, a load of absolute horseshit. Corporations are only after their bottom line, and most of the time they fail miserably even at that. That said, however, it seems to me pretty absurd to get upset about the relatively modest salaries of any nonprofit exec, theatrical or otherwise, given how obscene executive pay is in the private sector.
Please comment.

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2 comments:

Mike said...

I can't quite parse this:

"This is in response to someone talking about Mike Daisey's argument, which I also don't buy, that the regional theatre movement was created only to house resident companies and should get back to that, or else we should overthrow the whole system and find some other way to make theatre, which I also don't think is remotely realistic"

Just to be clear: I don't believe I've ever actually advocated the overthrow of anything. A number of other folks beat that drum, certainly, but I don't believe the essay or the monologue supports that assertion.

Also, while I am very passionate about the need for resident theatre companies to return to their core values and fulfill them, I've never been so absolutist about exactly how it is implemented, or certainly theaters that aren't in the cities resident theaters were established make a lot of sense.

A lot of these are great posts--it's wonderful to see such great foment and discussion happening.

Leonard Jacobs said...

I hear you, but I dispute some of what you're saying.