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Small Changes, Big Results: Paying Our Theater Interns

Equity in the Arts
Wenxuan Xue, a Lark Apprentice, and Anna Kull, Lark staff, sit turned around in their desk chairs to face each other and talk

As someone who didn’t study theater until college, I was very innocent to believe that “I’m sure I will figure it out once I graduate”, without thinking about the reality of this field. In my sophomore spring, I was able to secure a grant from my school to complete an unpaid arts administration internship, but after that year, I grew very anxious about how I could make a living working in the arts. I watched as my peers were moving from one internship to another; some of them didn’t pay, some of them offered stipends, and some of them even required application fees and tuitions. In my senior year of college, I could only find a handful of programs to apply to that were either paid or offered stipends, and I wish there had been a list of opportunities or resources that could have helped more. (Sidenote, I made that list of opportunities for young people like me who are in that same position now).

Being an international student adds more uncertainty. Especially last summer before I joined The Lark as the Communications Apprentice, it took a ridiculous amount of time for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to process and approve my employment authorization card for my Optional Practical Training (OPT). While I was lucky enough to receive the legal documents before I started working in September, many of my friends had to wait for a long time and couldn’t start working or receive any paycheck during the exhausting wait time. 

As a field that is supposed to imagine the future, change the world, and create opportunities to seek beyond the paradigm, the theater industry needs to do better. 

Moreover, this topic is nothing new. It has been discussed for a very long time and little change has happened. Just take a look below, if you are still new to the topic, at the long list of writing on why we need to pay interns better: 

But, since it still needs to keep being said, I’ll add my voice to the list.

If we can all be on the same page as to why unpaid internships should be obsolete, then the question becomes, how do we make the change? How do we start paying the interns, artists, and staff better? Granted, I don’t think we (The Lark or myself) are in a position to give definitive advice. I know firsthand how difficult it is to sustain a non-profit organization against many odds, and The Lark’s paid Apprenticeship model has grown slowly and over time, only reaching the point of being able to pay minimum wage in the coming season. 

But, what we can do is to share how we got here, and hopefully that will be useful to the ongoing conversation. I sat down with Anna Kull, the Director of Communications and People at The Lark to reflect on our journey transitioning from unpaid internships to a paid Apprentice Program. Instead of repeating the same old answers to why, maybe this time we can shift to ask ourselves, why not

WENXUAN XUE: The Lark used to have an unpaid internship. It transitioned into a paid apprenticeship around the same time when Equity, Access, and Inclusion (EAI) values became a part of The Lark’s mission. Can you tell me a bit more about that time? How did the transition happen? 

ANNA KULL: It was definitely sparked by our investment in equity, and that investment was sparked by the 2011 Theater Communications Group Fall Forum conference, where Katori Hall gave a keynote speech. She's a Board Member of The Lark as well as an amazing and frequent playwright here. Her speech touched on how difficult it was for her as an actor to find roles and how that transitioned into her becoming a writer. Hearing her talk so passionately about it was very moving. Then Theatre Communications Group, in an effort led beautifully by Dafina McMillan, called on its member theaters to invest in equity. They wanted folks to have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plans, and to commit to three years of work in these areas. Michael Robertson and I were the two staff members in the room at the time, along with board members Bruce Cohen and The Lark’s wonderful marketing consultant Donna Walker-Kuhne. It was a big moment. That was when The Lark publically named that we wanted to be more equitable and begin to try to figure out what that meant. At least I started trying to figure out what being equitable meant. I needed a lot of training and analysis and I learn more everyday. What I could bring was raw and earnest enthusiasm. 

As an Executive Assistant at the time, I didn't have a lot of power over a lot of areas but I ran and hired for our internship program, so it was one of the first things I wanted to make more equitable. We also identified early on that we wanted a more racially diverse staff. Many of us on staff came to The Lark from our internship program, which was unpaid at that time, so of course you would have to have had financial privilege in order to do it. In addition, a lot of our internship applicants had a lot of previous internships, and many were leaving our internship program for other internships. So it actually wasn't getting folks jobs. Wanting to redesign the program to be more equitable was one of the first things that the staff talked about doing. I remember designing it as part of a staff retreat for a five-year plan. My initial proposal was, let's start paying five hundred bucks a month, and transition to a season-long apprenticeship. Let's try it and see if that can actually launch people into the workforce as opposed to another internship. Let's see if it makes a difference. That seems affordable as a starting place.

WX: I noticed that just two years ago, The Lark apprentices were still working 30 hours per week with a $800 monthly stipend.

AK: Yes. The stipend went up a little bit every year, and some years a little bit more than others. It was a big shift this year to go to $1000 per month, 25 hours a week.

WX: I’m glad that these small changes have been happening over time. Even though they seem small, they are very impactful. Now we’re seeing a change in the salary of the apprenticeship becoming minimum wage!

AK: Which was the goal when we first launched, and that was articulated as our five-year goal. At that time the New York City minimum wage was $9. So I think we're actually already there, but we need to do better. I'm glad that now the minimum wage is $15. Though it's still not a living wage, it's closer.

WX: Exactly. It’s important to acknowledge that minimum wage is a great progress, but there's still a long way to go. It's not just for internships or apprenticeships, it's the whole industry. I haven't seen a lot of artists who are full-time artists, many of them have side jobs to make a living. How can The Lark be an agent of change in that role over the long term? What's after the minimum wage?

AK: That's such a good question! After minimum wage, let's work towards living wage and let's work towards health insurance. Can we make any contributions to retirement and if we could, could they just be for everyone regardless of a match? I can imagine a lot of things. I think nonprofits tend to not focus on internship, apprenticeship, and staff salaries, because you need to put more support towards programs, which I think is beautiful if your team is privileged to manage on that. But I think as a service organization, it's also really important to take care of yourself and put your internal house in order. If you want to be giving a lot to the field, if you really want to make change, I think continually making these steps towards better payment is hugely useful. What you said about the artists is also beautiful and part of the puzzle. Roundtables used to be an unpaid program, now there's a small stipend that at least will be covering the travels for all the artists who are putting in their time. Can that get better over time? 

WX: Where does the money come from? Where is the source of the funds? Do you think it's a matter of priority, a matter of how we allocate our money? We also see many nonprofits who are running into financial deficits. So how do we balance these two things at the same time?

AK: I think you're absolutely right in terms of balance. It has to be about prioritizing.  For example, our Apprentice Program has not had program-specific funding, which means it is coming out of general operating support, which means we're choosing to pay for it above other things. It's challenging to keep up programs like this because, starting next season, apprentices will be employees. So it is a very conscious choice to keep our Apprentice Program rather than hiring additional staff. That was a big decision, one that I'm really excited about. Because our Apprentice Program gives us life. We believe in it. We love the educational aspect of it. We love the people we meet through it. Both the apprentices and the applicants. Hopefully one day someone wants to sponsor the program. If not, we will just have to keep figuring it out.

WX: You also talked about how incredibly educational these experiences are for apprentices. According to Council of Nonprofits and also Department of Labor, it's legally allowed to have unpaid internships or interns with stipends, but they need to be educational and cannot replace the work of full-time staff members. It's a delicate line between when one is working and when one is learning. How do you draw the line?

AK: I think about this a lot. I think about how it’s very different being part of an organization’s team as an educational experience than it is being a student. Our education has always been a practical education. Be here, be a part of the inner-workings of The Lark, have real responsibilities. This educational approach is tied to a couple of things, one in particular is that we want people to leave here with jobs. I think the value of that is huge. I think setting clear expectations is huge as well. Whereas I completely believe in the educational nature of the practical experience here, I think if folks come in and expect more of a school-like or curriculum-based training it'll be really disappointing. It is very useful for folks who like to learn in this hands-on style. 

For me, regarding the line, I always thought about what I needed after school. I was an actor and I didn't want to get an MFA because of the cost. But I needed a program that had a showcase. I was a part of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's apprenticeship program and that for me was a great alternative to an MFA. It was educational and it was a ton of work. In the back of my mind with The Lark's program was wanting it to be a good alternative to getting a degree in arts administration. Maybe because you can't afford it, or maybe school isn't the way you learn best. So I was asking, how can we provide the education side so that folks leave here with better connections, better job prospects, and more skills? I think we've done a good job of that, but there's always room for improvement too.
Artist Hours are also huge because it's one of the aspects of the program where the entire purpose is educational. It is completely for the apprentices and not for anyone else in the organization. Participating in Apprentice Roundtables is also really helpful. These are what I see on the right side of that line. 

WX: Definitely having Artist Hours was helpful for me. Listening to their stories, walking through their journey can help me clarify where I want to go next in my process.

When you look at an applicant, how important is their prior experience? 

AK: I think it depends very much on the person and the position. The way we are hiring and how our evaluation process happens, that's not one of the main criteria. The core is whether something that you're looking for is able to be fulfilled by our program. We're looking for alignment in values and desire to work with us on our messy journey towards equity. We've had folks for whom this is their first experience working in an office. I think that's beautiful, because then the educational part of our program is very clear to me. And we've also had folks who have had a lot of experience, but there's something very specific about The Lark, and about our program that would really feed where they want to go next. And that's really beautiful too. I think if we want to keep serving the educational nature, one of the things we need to look at is, will this experience be meaningful to you?

WX: Having one organization increase the salary of apprentices is not going to change the system of scarcity. Then why still go this far? Why be the one of the few?

AK: Part of me just feels like, it's the right thing to do, and that's really important. When I look at our mission and I look that we want to be a place where people can be their full selves, it does feel like we just have to keep working towards equity. I think in terms of resources, it can be hard not to have a scarcity paradigm in the nonprofit sector. We have to be fiscally-responsible. But I just think if more organizations do it, they'll be so glad they did. I think they would just look back and be like, oh my goodness that was worth the investment. We know what it's done for us in terms of the staff members we have met through the program and how it's made the organization grow. Because, after all, organizations are their people. And the people I meet in the interview process every year are just amazing. It's my favorite time of the year.  Because learning about the apprentice applicants, hearing their hopes, dreams, and questions gives me full certainty that the theater field is going to be incredible. I just think what you get back is tenfold, so why not do it

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.