In 2020, it’s not easy to get a new job or a promotion. This lamentation isn’t just an impression; it’s a reality affecting multiple industries in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But even before COVID-19, many fields had already redefined the parameters of the entry-level job, which once promised a foot in the door but now may ask for years of relevant experience for little more than minimum wage. Although the issue is widespread, this slope feels even more slippery in theatre, where getting from an internship to a staff position seems to present more challenges and in-between steps than other fields.
Part of the feeling of career fractioning comes from the apprenticeship model, a hybrid of one-on-one educational training and hands-on job experience that has moved from the artistic to the administrative realm. Whether in costume design or marketing, apprenticeship programs offer early-career theatre professionals the chance to learn as they go, and potentially to climb the ranks within a nonprofit theatre’s staff. But anyone who’s completed an apprenticeship can tell you that while there are educational and professional benefits, all too often these theatres seem to use these programs as a form of underpaid, overworked labor to make it through the next season.
“Apprenticeships, by definition, are not equitable,” says one person I spoke to who completed a program at a theatre in the South in the 2017-18 season, and who asked to be anonymous so he could speak freely. He recalls being told to work overtime by bosses who acknowledged the unfairness of their demands, but made those demands just the same. And what power does an apprentice—often someone just out of college, with very little professional experience or networking relationships to fall back on—have to say no to a request to work overtime, or pick up the slack in another department? This apprentice, paid about $3.13 an hour to work full time, worked more than 40 hours a week when auditions and a production’s run competed with regular office work. According to public tax filings, the theatre where he worked took in more than $13 million in revenue for the 2018-19 season.
How can a business pay workers well below the minimum wage, you may ask? The secret ingredient is the promise of education, the prospect of learning by trial and error, but in practice this is often a cover for grunt work and exploitation. The education loophole allows nonprofit institutions to pay as little as $2.50 an hour for a full schedule of work in the guise of a stipend, which theatres give out explicitly for food, housing, or transportation.
Many apprenticeship programs offer perks, like access to a company car or a free transit pass, in addition to standard company fare, like free tickets to shows. Some offer housing or even health insurance, though this is rare, and some allow apprentices to pick up shifts in concessions or at the box office for minimum wage, though this crossover is illegal in some states. A stipend of “$50 a day” sounds more enticing than “$6.25 an hour,” which is what one Manhattan theatre that earned $12.1 million in revenue in 2018-19 offers for a 40- to 48-hour workweek. The New York Department of Labor emphasizes that such an arrangement is only acceptable if the worker in question does not “displace regular employees” and could be learning the same skills in a classroom setting.
The obvious problems and abuses of this system have been documented in many articles and blogs. One woman reports being called on an emergency phone line to fix a ceiling leak in the middle of the night when she was completing a marketing and development apprenticeship, while another apprentice details having to “make a teaching moment out of racist and sexist comments that were made during casting sessions,” only to find that the theatre’s human resources liaison had a conflict of interest as the head of financial operations. Many theatre professionals know of stories like these, and they either believe in the value of “paying your dues” or long for a more equitable system that they have no way to enact.
The coronavirus pandemic only stands to worsen the problems with the apprenticeship model, as revenues decrease, costs from such amenities as new air filtration systems rise, and many theatres are likely to remain closed until next fall. With theatres tightening their belts, apprenticeship programs are unlikely to see more funds and resources in the post-COVID season, heightening the already stark disparities between those who can afford to take jobs in the arts for little or no money, and those whose economic situation may force them into another field.
On the other hand, this hiatus has brought out voices demanding that theatre address its systemic inequities, in particular the institutionalized racism called out by We See You White American Theatre and similar initiatives. While a comparable reckoning may be due for apprenticeship programs, there is not always a clear model of best practices to consult. The Lark, a playwright’s theatre in New York, initiated gradual stipend increases for its part-time, season-long apprentice program, and advertised the city’s minimum wage of $15 per hour for the 2020-21 apprenticeship season; like many other theatre companies, the Lark has suspended the program altogether due to the coronavirus. Still, they’re collaborating with other theatres to publish guidelines for best practices in early 2021, in hopes that more programs will be prepared to return from the shutdown with their best foot forward.
“These conversations around equity in the field are burgeoning as we’re all sitting in our apartments and finally focusing on what we need to focus on,” says Olivia George (she/her), the Lark’s communications manager. George started as an apprentice at the Lark in the inaugural program, and has since guided subsequent communications apprentices while also working as a playwright.
The Lark’s program is one of a handful in the city that pays minimum wage—still not a living wage for an adult, as both George and Nora Monahan (they/them), the Lark’s director of development, acknowledge, but a step on the path to fairer compensation. This goes hand in hand with an effort to teach apprentices how to navigate tough conversations on their time and labor in the industry.
Though the Lark’s apprenticeship program is offered under an educational rubric, they take pains to avoid exploitative practices under the guise of learning experiences. “I definitely recognize that there are people who have worked in the industry longer [than I], who have things that they can teach me and that I can learn from them,” says Monahan, who once interned at New York’s Town Hall and found its program somewhat similar to the Lark’s. “But I hate the mindset of, ‘Well, I suffered abuse and exploitation, so now you have to.’”
Monahan and George’s goal is to teach their apprentices not only how to build a career in the arts, but how to advocate for themselves in the workplace, which is one reason the Lark’s program had a separate point person to handle HR-like concerns. Monahan and George, who credit Nissy Aya, Anna Kull, and Michael Robertson as the main architects of the apprenticeship program, hope that the program will be back in full swing once theatres can safely return to in-person operations.
Former apprentices have mixed opinions on the future of the system: Some hope that the industry can use this time to plan a transition to more fixed models of entry-level employment and on-the-job training, rather than continuing the crash-course style of apprenticeships. The aformentioned apprentice who worked at a theatre in the South in 2017-18 describes the educational employment loophole as “the biggest lie I hear” about apprenticeships, adding that “every internship and apprenticeship that I have done has been a full-time job that was essential to the operation of the theatre. If you want folks of all social, economic, and racial backgrounds to work for your company, that starts with fairly paid entry-level jobs with benefits.”
Others point to trends in the lack of entry-level job growth as a concerning factor for the already precarious theatre sector, and suggest that reforming the apprenticeship model could mitigate the effects of this stagnation. “Forced turnover is good; people stay in entry-level jobs too long, because they can’t find better jobs,” says the apprentice who dealt with the ceiling leak. She hopes that instead of axing the program, the company where she worked increases the pay and delegates things like the on-call system to salaried employees. And while she appreciates that many of these programs allow apprentices to dip their toes into areas of interest in the theatre, she knows that this can lead to someone taking on too much work, voluntarily or otherwise. As the only Black woman in her apprentice cohort, her desire to help the theatre recruit more artists and administrators of color led to a diversity and inclusion committee whose responsibilities fell, in large part, on her shoulders.
She also fully recognizes that this sort of burnout affects arts administrators just as much as it does their interns: The apprenticeship coordinator, who was also the theatre’s assistant artistic director, was then appointed the head of the committee, perpetuating a cycle of overwork and inefficiency at the company.
Monahan believes that the mentality of “the show must go on” harms theatre professionals at all levels of employment, from the intern to the artistic director, and that this “endemic” issue can only be solved through an industry-wide critical examination. “We’re trying to change our administrative practices and compensation levels, but we’re also trying to have some kind of cultural shift,” they say. Interns and apprentices have spoken up about unfair practices before now, but having time away from the cycle of productions can give theatre companies the chance to regroup and reassess their practices. “We believe that people do their best work when they are taken care of, and when they take care of themselves,” Monahan says. If that requires a shift in a theatre’s operating budget to ensure that apprentices can focus on their work and worry less about being able to pay for food and rent, the benefits will outweigh the costs.
Amelia Merrill (she/her) is a former intern of American Theatre.
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