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AMERICAN THEATRE | The Theatre Industry’s Internship Problem

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Note: Theatre Communications Group, the publisher of American Theatre, had an unpaid internship program until March 2020 that included internships at American Theatre. While this program complied with all legal requirements of internship, TCG is reevaluating the program’s future and doesn’t plan to resume it until there is capacity to compensate interns.


“Hi, Rosie! I’m surviving. The winter season broke me. The first month I didn’t get time off, and was pretty much taken advantage of a bit. When rehearsing shows, we work 12 hours a day, and the interns are stretched to the limits. We are offered housing, a bus pass, and $80 a week.”

I had contacted a former student, now working as an intern at a major regional theatre with one of the country’s most well-respected and prestigious acting internships, in hopes of sharing his experience with my current crop of students, who have been eagerly applying to internships themselves.

The message continued: “We are watched very carefully, and sometimes it feels a little imprisoning. I’m trying to take it as a learning lesson, and to not let this place take my spirit.”

This wasn’t a young kid whining about encountering hard work for the first time in his life. My student was an Air Force veteran in his mid-30s, an accomplished martial artist, and a recent graduate of an extremely rigorous acting conservatory. He was no stranger to hard work and discipline. The innate optimism and desire to learn that I remembered from the classroom came through years later in this Facebook message.

I was horrified and disappointed, but not necessarily surprised. After all, I’d spent my early 20s in callbacks for similar acting internships, where program directors sold us on food stamps as a supplement to the meager income we’d be earning, and still others dangled Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) points in return for thousands of dollars in “tuition.” During the internship I landed, I remember shaking after running my numbers through TurboTax. The company I was working for had misclassified me as a 1099 employee, and, as I was too young to be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, I discovered I was on the hook for $1,000 in federal taxes—on my under-$9,000-a-year salary.

These problems have historically been discussed among interns and former interns as a collection of isolated war stories, and largely ignored or minimized by artistic leadership. But Lift the Curtain, an advocacy group founded during the pandemic and in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the attendant racial and labor awakenings in the American theatre, aims to break this silence.

A small group of activists have seized on the industry-wide shutdown as a moment to instigate systemic change. They created the Lift the Curtain as a Facebook group and quickly saw its numbers balloon on social media, as former intern after former intern shared their stories publicly, many for the first time. In response to this outpouring of interest, Lift the Curtain put out a survey calling for interns over the past 10 years to record both quantitative and qualitative data about their experiences. A wave of responses poured in, resulting in a massive spreadsheet that includes information about salary and housing but also provides answers to open-ended questions like, “Do you have any comments regarding this internship specifically?”

So far more than 1,600 U.S-based current and former design, production, artistic, education, and acting interns from over 400 institutions have answered the call (as did apprentices, residents, and fellows—but because there is no standard, industry-wide distinction in the way these various positions operate, I’ll be using the term “intern” as an umbrella for all of these). The results provide a zoomed-out look at endemic trends, and heartbreaking anecdotes that illuminate these trends on a personal level. To comb through this data is to take a journey through the dark engine that for too long has powered the American theatre.

The 62 Center, where Williamstown Theatre Festival’s mainstage productions are usually produced.

The first and most obvious problem the document reveals is the question of wages. While most internships in the country provide some amount of compensation, 37 percent of those recorded were entirely unpaid, with a substantial amount of those unpaid internships requiring applicants to pony up as much as $6,000 in tuition, housing, and transportation. Those internships that were paid offered an average salary of $151 per week, and a yet-lower median salary of $125. Almost all the internships recorded were full-time, making these numbers red flags in and of themselves: $150 a week works out to $3.75 an hour for a 40-hour workweek, dollars below the federal minimum wage of $7.25, which was in place during the entire 10-year scope of the survey. Only 9.2 percent of salaried internships, and 5.6 percent of all internships, paid minimum wage or more.

And this is assuming a 40-hour workweek. In response to the general question calling for comments, there were 247 mentions of working unpaid overtime, with many interns reporting working 60, 80, and even 100 hours a week.

How to account for this? The short answer is that theatre companies take a variety of approaches to flouting well-worn labor laws in the bright light of day. Companies that pay their interns will often, as the company that ran my internship did, classify interns as independent contractors, a category reserved for true freelancers and independent contractors who work on their own time and provide a service to individuals or companies (think plumbers and therapists who work independently, or artists who sell paintings). In the words of the IRS, “The general rule is that an individual is an independent contractor if the payer has the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done.”

Labeling employees independent contractors puts the tax burden entirely on the contractor, allowing companies not only to evade their tax responsibilities both to the government and to the employee, but also to avoid minimum wage and overtime laws entirely.

Of respondents who had paid internships, 38 percent said their institutions used this tactic. A small percentage evade the same laws by misclassifying interns as volunteers or students of the theatre company, and labeling their salaries as travel stipends, scholarships, or grants. Still others pay entirely under the table. About 56 percent pay on a W-2, but are still able to dodge wage laws fairly easily because companies are only required to report wages to the IRS, not hours worked.

As for internships that don’t pay, the Department of Labor allows companies to host unpaid internship programs as long as these programs meet seven criteria outlined in Fact Sheet 71 (although the Fact Sheet specifies only that these rules apply to…

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