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Jay Duckworth looks at #Lift The Curtain: End Unpaid Arts Internships

Jay Duckworth • August 2020Early Career • July 29, 2020

Prop artisan Eric Hart tweeted “When theater comes back, it should come back with no more unpaid internships or less-than-minimum wage apprenticeships. Most of them are illegal anyways, and it only allows the privileged among us to build a good resume.” At the time of writing this, the tweet had 1.4K retweets and comments and 5.1K Likes. I contacted Eric and we started talking about this topic, even bringing in others and having a Zoom meeting so we could begin to take some action.

Joining Together

We started a group on Facebook called #LiftThe Curtain that now has over 5,000 members. Out of the larger group, a smaller, organizing group has been created and is working on developing an action plan. There is a deep and serious need for us to act. Below is my opinion on why we should act; this is not a statement of opinion from #LiftTheCurtain. 

Theater has prided itself as being open and free on one hand, and on the other it is seen as elitist and exclusive; it’s a real dichotomy. Theater has always been a great equalizer of people by bringing all the different classes together. A lot of artists dream of becoming famous to break free of the class that they were born into and rub elbows with the IN crowd. But there is a price that you have to pay, and it’s called paying your dues. Working in tiny, no budget theaters, getting abused by people of power, being on top and then starting all over again, and through it all we say we love it… and we do. It is a textbook example of an abusive relationship. Some, very few in fact, get a break and ‘make it’ however one defines that. But in order to even go through all of that crap you need an in. It took me about 15 years to break into Off-Broadway theater, it was a different time, mind you, but I didn’t have the connections I needed, but one person did open a door for me. 

A lot of people don’t get that opportunity. In fact, a lot of the time that door is shut, locked, and you have to get through a gate before you even reach that door. Some people have a disproportionate disadvantage coming into the theater. Where people get the edge starts in their zip code. Some internships require college credits; gate one, blocked by secondary education, not by your talent. Some internships offer pay as low as $25 a day. Boom that’s another gate closed if you have to earn money in order to pay for your schooling and living expenses; economics narrows the gate down. All the years I have worked in theater in NYC, that theater had a $25 a day intern policy and I was embarrassed to talk about it. When students would ask about opportunities to intern, I would tell them to go to the website and investigate the internships. It was pure shame on my part; it wasn’t lack of talent keeping these young people out of the arts. 

And lastly, some people have to pay for the privilege to get experience. From working in a box office or directing cars in a parking lot. So, if you do not have financial backing to take care of you, you will never get to the door. If they can’t afford to take a low or no pay internship, then they can’t get through the gate, much less the door. Economics can be a huge barrier.

These economic reasons, combined with the overall oppressive system white people created, also plays into why so few Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) people are in theaters, many are systematically kept out, right from the beginning of the career path.

It’s Just the Way it’s Always Been Done

Some colleges and universities require an internship for you to graduate. This forces young people into situations where they don’t fully know the rules and will do what they can, so they are seen as a team player. One of my students, who was assured that their internship requirement was only two afternoons a week, was told by their supervisor at the theater that she had to work weekends and far more hours than what was originally agreed upon. She felt powerless because the supervisor said that she was required to do other duties as assigned. ‘Some evenings and weekends are required’ is usually in internship agreements as well. If you ARE getting $25 a day for a 40-hour week, but you are working 60-90 hours a week, there is a big problem. When one tries and asks why, you are met with ‘I know, we wish we could pay you, believe me. This is something we’ve been working on for years here, but we just can’t.’ So, you are basically being told ‘this is the system that is in place; let’s end this discussion and speak of it no further’.

Some campuses have a theater with general theater classes in the summer where it turns out to be just more pay-to-play internships only having a skeleton crew of overworked grad students and a handful of paid theater practitioners in key positions. Then people are worked in ungodly conditions, in a basement, in a barn, in an old warehouse, in a field—with or without cover, with dodgy safety oversight, and bootcamp hours. Then when you are told ‘yeah this is the life, I’d just get used to it’. This just normalizes those abusive patterns.

Beginning a Conversation

I’m not even going to pretend to have any answers, but I do think that we need to have a real conversation about these inequities. As we have seen on the Facebook page for #LiftTheCurtain, this has led to more discussion. The organizing committee has met in a Zoom meeting to talk about developing the action plan. I’m reaching out to you now because there is power in our numbers and diversity is our strength. Please feel free to join the discussion and help us end unpaid/underpaid arts internships. 

Further information from #LiftTheCurtain: www.facebook.com/groups/588849201770626/ or e-mail them: endunpaidtheatreinternships@gmail.com to become part of the organizing effort.  

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