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Report on Internships in North America + Guidelines to Consider
by Carrie Hughes & Brian Quirt, January 2009
There is no single path to a career in dramaturgy (or indeed, no single picture of what a “career in dramaturgy” is), but more and more, at least in the United States, internships have become an expected step. Good internships provide experience and on-the-job education, and can provide a crash course in the workings of professional theater. There is however, also the danger that as early career dramaturgs with little previous work experience, interns can be, or can feel that they are being, exploited. LMDA represents many student and early career dramaturgs and, being concerned about the working conditions of our members, sought to review the current state of internships and provide a brief set of guidelines useful to both prospective interns and the theatres that employ them.
In an effort of get a better picture the current situation regarding internships, in 2007/08 LMDA conducted a survey of its members asking about their internship experiences. In addition, a discussion on the LMDA Discussion Listserv from March 2008 provided further food for thought. (This discussion can be viewed on the LMDA Listserv Archive.) While it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions from either source, many common themes appeared in the surveys, confirming the ideas brought forth in the discussion on the listserv and informal conversations with our colleagues.
Almost all former interns indicated that their internships were a valuable experience, and they would still take the internship they completed. A combination of meaningful, satisfying work, the chance try a wide variety of tasks, the opportunity to learn about the way theaters function, positive relationships with theater staff, and access to interesting artists all were listed as positive aspects of the internship experience. Respondents noted that internships varied in length from several months to a year with a number indicating that they wished their internships had been longer (a entire season rather than a few months), in order to take full advantage of the experience.
The low or lack of pay was a constant refrain. Funding is desirable, and a living wage for all full-time interns is a noble and necessary goal. Many former interns noted that they did their internships at a point in their lives where they could manage on next to nothing, but that they would not be able to do it now. Respondents reported taking on debt while interning, having to save carefully for the opportunity, or, in some cases, not considering internships because of the need to earn a living. By making it possible for interns to break even on their expenses, internship programs help shape the future of the profession, one that includes a diversity of class and social backgrounds, and enable older career shifters with a diversity of experience to consider dramaturgy. Unfortunately, given the current economic climate and the generally precipitous financial situation of most American theaters, this may not be realistic for every theater. LMDA urges all theatres to pursue appropriate compensation for their interns to enable them to focus their time and energy on the internship. We likewise urge interns to discuss openly with potential internship programs the reality of their financial and housing situations. Many survey respondents, for example, reported earning “extra” money through other jobs, some at the theaters where they were interning.
Critical characteristics of quality internships included a theater culture that respects interns as colleagues, bosses who advocate for and mentor their interns, and work that was interesting and related to the field (see below). Conversely, unsuccessful internships emphasized administrative and service-oriented tasks at the expense of learning and working in literary management and or dramaturgy, and undervalued the contribution of interns. LMDA urges all theatres to envision and structure their internships as significant learning experiences for the next generation of theatre artists. LMDA urges prospective interns to search for internship programs rather than “internship positions” that do not include explicit and clearly defined training opportunities. While an administrative component is inevitable in almost any office job (we challenge you to find a literary intern who does no photocopying), it should not dominate the experience.
Based on the survey and discussions with our colleagues, LMDA endorses these internship guidelines. A high quality internship program should:
- Include a detailed discussion prior to beginning the internship of the intern’s goals and the theater’s expectations (including duties, hours, work and training plan, remuneration, mentorship).
- Include appropriate, meaningful work with specific projects and responsibilities (examples might include script reading, research, attending rehearsal, writing program notes or study guides, assisting production dramaturgs, designing post-show discussions). While some degree of administrative work, both within and outside the department, is expected, it should not regularly replace meaningful educational work.
- Provide thorough evaluation of an intern’s work based on agreed upon expectations by the theatre and intern. Evaluation may be informal, but should occur both mid-way through and at the end of the internship.
- Provide access to people and connections that provide education in the theater and may further interns’ careers.
- Provide mentoring and advocacy for interns, both during their internship and beyond.
- Strive towards a reasonable wage or housing plus stipend. If this is not financially possible, opportunities to earn additional money through other jobs, either at or outside the theater, must be available.
Note: the survey focused on American internship programs, but we urge that these considerations be utilized by Canadian theaters and members of LMDA Canada. Also, consider consulting LMDA’s Guide to Internship Programs, which is updated periodically, and is available to LMDA members only.