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Worth More Than Work

Equity in the Arts
Headshots of The Lark's 2017-18 Apprentices. In order - A.A. Brenner, Sarah Machiko Haber, Chloe Knight, Mona Moriya, and Christopher Reyes.
The 2017-18 Lark Apprentices (Left to right: A.A. Brenner, Sarah Machiko Haber, Chloe Knight, Mona Moriya, Christopher Reyes)

On the evening of June 12th, we, the 2017-2018 Lark Apprentices, are holding a convening to talk about misconduct and harassment towards theater interns, and to address inequities in the field.  In preparation for the convening a survey has been sent out to gather responses on what would be most helpful for programming. We sat down to write and share our own experiences in solidarity with other people are also working jobs with less positional power. Among the five of us our experiences range from financial inaccessibility to microaggressions and harassment. Theater is built on the backs of unpaid and underpaid labor, a systemic issue that we don’t have a solution for, but by talking about our experiences in community we will join other efforts that are moving the industry towards more equitable ways of working.

It also didn’t go unnoticed that most of the instances we are sharing below happened at our first jobs in the theater industry, when we felt that we had a reputation to build, effectively silencing us. It has been a few years for most of us since these instances happened. We are still confronting and hearing about similar situations and therefore have decided to address our experiences openly.

It is a privilege to work in theater. We acknowledge that the five of us have various privileges and that we are able to work in theater because of them. Therefore, we have a responsibility to create a space and join with other interns and apprentices. We believe that just because we are working jobs with less positional power does not mean our value as a person is diminished. We should be treated with respect and dignity.

Throughout college I was told time and time again that in order to compete with other people in the job market I needed a strong resume. The only way to distinguish myself was by filling my resume with internships. This thought hammered away in the back of my mind from the first day of my freshman year. I needed to find a job as soon as I graduated, especially with the amount of student loans I was collecting under my name and my mother’s name. It wasn’t an option not to have a job waiting for me the moment I graduated. It was a relief when I decided to attend a school in New Jersey, only an hour train ride away from the countless opportunities in New York City, but that feeling was short-lived when I realized how much the roundtrip ticket alone would cost me. I resigned myself to focusing on my schoolwork and looking for internships only during the summer months, but despite saving up as much as I could, it still wasn’t enough. The cost of living is so high that the money I accumulated from working part-time during the school year wouldn’t last me a month in New York. Rent. Food. Transportation. Without a paid internship, which is nearly impossible to find, I had to resign myself to going back to Maryland after my freshman and sophomore year. My family lives in a suburb on the outskirts of Baltimore, so despite the number of theaters existing in the city, my access to them was still limited. For two years my resume remained so empty that I resorted to listing my high school accomplishments. I was worried that when I would apply to jobs post-grad that I would be compared to someone who had internships, real professional work experiences. It would be nothing short of a David vs. Goliath moment except David doesn’t have stones and he gets squashed by Goliath. Hard.

It wasn’t until after my junior year that I was able to afford an unpaid internship in New York City with the help of a school grant and some financial support from family and friends. Although I lived frugally, I got to work for an Asian-American company. And yes, it gave my resume a boost, but more than anything it was an experience that changed me as a person. They not only taught me countless lessons, but also reinstated my values as a theater artist. For the first time in my career, I was in a room with a creative team primarily made up of other Asian-American artists. My school and the theater department were and still are predominantly white institutions. At my internship I saw, firsthand, people like me onstage -  and not only onstage, but in the production meetings, in the rehearsal rooms, in the scene shop. I saw that I was capable and that there was room for me somewhere.

If you break down the economics of internships, they usually go to the people with the most access to money and connections. Because who can take a three-month job without getting paid? Not someone like me, who was raised by a single parent who had put two other kids through college before me. Not someone like me, who had no connections to anyone with influence in the theater industry. It’s a cycle that not only takes advantage of young people who will do anything to secure job stability, but also pushes out those who have nothing. But more than just putting people with no resources at a disadvantage, it also takes away meaningful opportunities for them. I wouldn’t be where I am now and I wouldn’t be the artist I am now without having had that first opportunity. The only reason I was able to take it was because so many things happened to line up for me (it took a whole damn village), but there are many who aren’t so fortunate.

I spent my junior year of college stage managing for several different theaters. On one of the shows, I had a very candid conversation with the Production Stage Manager, a mentor, during pre-production, about dressing for the rehearsal room. I was dressing conservatively anyway, but the conversation we had was purely to reinforce that I was a young woman and that there might be people in the room - and certainly people in my future - who would feel entitled to my body. Dressing carefully would not give much protection, but it couldn’t hurt to take every precaution. He apologized that he felt the need to even have the conversation, but he wanted to make sure I wasn’t entering the industry completely naive. I still appreciate the candor and care the conversation was held with, but it didn’t stop me from feeling guilty about my body, and that somehow, if anything were to happen, it would be my fault. I am still angry that the conversation had to happen in the first place because I knew then and I know now that clothing doesn’t protect you. That said, I do feel the conversation gave me permission to stop making excuses for other people's behavior. Although, I already knew this about the industry on some level, he made it real by putting it into words.

After college, at another company on another summer show, a fellow Stage Management intern and I were constantly coming up with new and resourceful ways to avoid being touched by some of the male company members as we tried to do our jobs. We would pretend to hear someone asking for something to avoid the hand on our lower back or choose to laugh at a demeaning joke while staying an arms length away. We knew cooperating was the quickest path to getting away. The experience of avoiding unwanted touch was not only demeaning, but frustrating because it took away precious time that could have been spent working or learning. It was never anything that could be reported, but it always made me feel they were somehow laying claim to my body. When an 18-year-old observer entered the room, the other Stage Management intern and I felt the need to protect her from what we were experiencing. We saw the way they looked at her from the moment she walked into the room and were furious, but felt there was very little we could do. I chose not to have the conversation with her that my mentor had with me. I didn’t want to make her feel she had to hide her body or who she was. I didn’t want her to feel that  success in her job was tied to the way she looked as we sometimes felt. Instead, it became second nature to keep an eye out for her as we went through the rehearsal process, again taking away from my ability to focus on what I was supposed to be learning. Maybe it was wrong not to warn her, but I wanted to preserve her ability to experience theater through rose colored glasses for a little longer. And I think on some level, she probably already knew too.

Being an intern doesn’t allow you to tell someone that their behavior is inappropriate because they might hold the key to your future. It’s even harder when it’s little things like a glance or a hand on your back. Rehearsal rooms can already be touchy-feely, high-stress places, but the stress of navigating a room where touch and emotions cross a line shouldn’t exist. Somebody’s inability to be appropriate should not detract from your learning experience. I feel fortunate that the most I’ve ever experienced in a rehearsal room has been a lingering hand on my upper arm or the sensation of wanting to crawl out of my skin. I shouldn’t have to feel fortunate that it’s all I’ve experienced because no one should have to experience unwanted touch, language, or sexual advances, and I know people have experienced far worse. Not excusing someone's behavior, and feeling that you can report it don’t always go hand in hand.  Sometimes the only thing you can do to protect yourself is to wear clothes that cover every inch of your skin, even in the middle of summer.

It was the summer going into my junior year. I had just turned twenty and I spent my time in Boston working two jobs—one as an office assistant and the other as an unpaid social media intern for a theater company. I was brought on because of my experience working in multicultural organizations at my college, specifically as a board member of a women of color artists collective, as well as serving as president of the Asian student union. Social justice and its relationship to the arts has been a huge part of my pursuit of a career in theater, attracting the attention of a theater company that was looking to include more diverse and inclusive content on their social media platforms.

I was never treated poorly and my supervisor was nothing but kind to me, but the internship was unpaid, and for something I felt was an asset, and necessary for the company to live up to its mission of being inclusive and equitable. The company was known for celebrating gender parity in our local theater scene, but during my time there I questioned the idea that an all white women cast and creative team is actually “gender parity.” What about women of color? I spent hours reading article after article on intersectionality, a term that was very new for the staff but for myself, it was the lens through which I lived my life. As someone who actively looks to self-educate on issues of equity, access, and inclusion, I found myself committing to emotional labor because this kind of work is personal. After my internship ended, their social media presence took a hit, and it was never as focused on diversity and inclusion in the arts in the way I aimed for it to be. With their only intern of color gone, self-education on intersectionality, for the rest of the team, disappeared.

On another note, having it be unpaid with not even a monthly train pass made it difficult for someone like myself, from a low-income background, to commit more hours than I was. Reflecting on my internship, I ask myself, would I have been perceived as a more dedicated intern if I took on a full-time unpaid internship versus a part-time? How are they talking about me to other theater professionals in the area?

I spent a good portion of my college career interning at a company I love and deeply admire to this day. I had a wonderful mentor and was graciously welcomed into the community. I was working at one of the company's education programs. The teacher called for the group to circle up when a student was hanging a light. The student ignored the instructions and continued to try to hang the light on the grid. This was one of those big stage lights, easily weighing at least 15 lbs. The grid extended to the entrance of the theater, which is where the student was working. I was leaving the theater to check on another student in the lobby, and, right at that moment, the light slipped from the student’s hand and fell on my head.

I put my hand to my head and realized I was bleeding. Two staff members took me to Urgent Care where they surgically glued the wound. While in the waiting room, a woman behind the desk asked me for my insurance card. Being on my parents’ plan, I was able to present my insurance card and a billing address without thinking about it. And whatever the co-pay was, it was sent to my parents.

The company was very nice about the incident. I took a few days off before returning back to the office or on site at the education program. I remember one of the staff members assuring me that the company was responsible, and if I needed help with insurance or the medical bills, they would help me figure it out. A few days later, multiple other staff members made a point of making sure that if I needed support, the company would help, and that they should be responsible for any bills. I refused, because at the time it seemed like a solvable problem where I didn’t need to bother the people who had given me my first professional opportunity. Looking back, there were definitely power dynamics at play where I felt taking them up on the offer would be asking too much or come off as being the “needy intern”.

But what if I wasn’t on my Dad’s health insurance plan? What if covering the co-pay had been a problem? What if I hadn’t had a family friend in the area who was a doctor, and came to check on me in the evening when I was still feeling dizzy so I didn’t have to take off more time from the internship to go to a doctor’s office? I had not signed any paperwork, there was no contract, to my knowledge there was nothing actually in writing to prove I worked there other than a thank you in the program. It was an unpaid internship, so there didn’t need to be. I was lucky that my life circumstances allowed me to take an unpaid internship, that I had good insurance, and that I walked away with nothing more than a mild concussion.

I don't think this incident could be blamed on any single individual, on staff, or the company as a whole. There were multiple points where the incident could have been prevented. Instead I see it as a fault of the always-busy, always-hectic, always-verging-on-a-crisis culture of non-profit theater that we do not question, and where interns are the saving-grace that come in and pick up the slack. I say this because once the incident happened, multiple staff members offered help, and it was clear my health and safety were overlooked details, rather than something purposefully ignored. Like many organizations, it was a busy non-profit where there was simply not the capacity to anticipate an incident like this. And the thing is, I totally get it. When there is a season to plan, a couple dozen teenagers to look after, and an annual budget to meet, thinking about the what-ifs of interns are not high on that priority list.

But look what happened when the health and well being of the intern was not a priority from the get-go. Had I been two inches closer to the exit, the light would have fallen directly on the top of my head, and I could have had a much more severe injury. We can all chalk the incident up to a funny anecdote now (and we have), but there could have been so many repercussions for both the company and myself, had the circumstances been different. Taking time to think through what we are asking of interns, and ensuring they are taken care of, could feel like a low priority, until the moment it matters.

Ever since high school, various career counselors, teachers, and other working professionals would tell me that taking on unpaid/underpaid internships was truly the only way to embark on a career in the theater. Now, 24 years old, I have worked a variety of entry-level internships, apprenticeships, and fellowships, all with a variety of requirements, time commitments, and levels of compensation, but the one common denominator I have noticed about them all is that the amount of work—or, frankly, overwork—and responsibility I would receive was always directly proportional to the amount of work—or, again, realistically, overwork—my bosses had on their plates as well. In an industry in which everyone is overworked and underpaid, it is hardly surprising that this would trickle down to the lowest common denominator—which, in most cases, are the very folks who are barely, or not at all, compensated in any way other than the “experience” they supposedly have now received.

While I am truly grateful for these experiences, and, thus, the in-depth view of the theater industry I have been granted over the past six years, and while I have been extremely, extremely fortunate to have had bosses who were all well-meaning, lovely people who ultimately were very supportive of my work and of my budding career, each of these “experiences” have come at their own cost. More than once, I have been delegated tasks under the guise of being given “a great responsibility” or an “incredible learning opportunity,” only to discover that the job I had been handed was one that should have been performed by a full-time, salaried staff member (and, in the case of one specific theater company I worked for, was performed by full-time staff in every other department except for the one in which I was employed). While being delegated this much responsibility was, on the one hand, extremely flattering for this young career professional, it also was incredibly overwhelming and, simply put, unfair. It could also be extremely emotionally taxing; for the first few months of my first job out of college, I often found myself cold-calling close friends while sobbing and confessing to them that I had begun to think that my decision to work in professional theater had been a huge mistake.

Ultimately, while I either became accustomed, or desensitized, to my workload in that first post-collegiate job, I will never forget the sheer helplessness I felt during those first few months. While some friends would point out I could technically quit, I knew it was never a real option, because while I was only minimally compensated in the scheme of the workforce in general, in relation to any other theater internship, apprenticeship, or fellowship, I had landed one of the cushiest compensatory packages possible—which still, without the aid of my parents, a privilege I know I was extraordinarily lucky to have had, would not have provided a truly livable wage—not to mention the fact that, if I did indeed wish to continue working in theater, the thought of eschewing the “experiences” I was told I had been privileged to be granted, and rejecting the extremely competitive job I had been fortunate to have secured in the first place, seemed, at best, downright foolish, and, at worst, the potential end of my very early career.

Thus, after 6 years of these varied experiences, I believe that no unpaid or minimally-paid intern, apprentice, or fellow should be doing the work of a full-time staff member without adequate compensation for their efforts; and while, again, I do not begrudge any of my former supervisors for having delegated to me this amount of work (what choice did they have? they were overworked as well!), I refuse to believe that the system is “just the way it is,” or that it is early career professionals’ jobs to just “grin-and-bear-it” for the sake of so-called “experience.” Only by coming together to openly and honestly discuss these issues can we begin to tackle the larger systemic problem of early career employment in the theatrical community at large, and it is an issue that must be tackled in order to ensure the appropriate compensation of young professionals—and, in turn, the continuance of their interest and ability to participate in—working in the theater industry not only right now, but also in the future.