By Natalie Dreyer

“How do you start a career in theater?” Everyone has their own story, and the correct answer is that there is no “one way” to enter this industry. When I am asked this question I always answer honestly and say that I think that my internship changed the trajectory of my life and was an invaluable experience. I have no doubt that my time as an intern and what I learned was instrumental in the next steps in my career. 

I spent the year prior to my internship working a minimum wage job at a coffee shop hoping that I would be able to save enough money to make the “living stipend” work. For a long time, I told myself that it was this year of work that allowed me to take the internship, but really it was my own privilege and the fact that I knew my parents would be able to help me if there was an emergency. As an industry, we have preyed on the unpaid labor of young, passionate people. We were convinced this system was successful because many of these unpaid interns went on to have careers in their chosen field. I have advocated for the importance of a protected learning environment for young artists, but often I didn’t realize the barriers to these programs. I began managing the internship program at Trinity Rep in 2014 with this naïve world view. 

Each year, as I grew more and more comfortable in my role and more and more aware of the inequity of access, I began advocating for change. In their end-of-season reflections, our interns stated consistently that they were learning and that they were gaining valuable experience. And that they needed more money. Every year we would report this information back and were told that there simply wasn’t room in the budget. We had an all-too-common non-profit mentality of false scarcity, and knew that entry level and early career professionals were also not paid very well. Some felt that interns needed to “pay their dues” to launch their careers. After all, many of us had held unpaid or low-paid internships ourselves at some point. We were perpetuating a system which exploited vulnerable young artists and administrators and told them that the only way to enter the professional theater world was through an unpaid internship. 

Since increasing the stipend did not seem like an option year after year, we got creative and tried to find ways that we could make the internship more educational and less of a financial burden. 

Some of those changes include: 

  • Centralizing the learning seminars in the Education Dept. Previously, “intern lunches” were organized by the interns themselves. They had very little structure and the topics were often random. Instead, we created a calendar, made them mandatory, bought donuts, structured different topics, and created a planning document for each guest speaker to give them some ideas. 
  • We began reflecting with both mentors and interns throughout the year, not only at the end of the season. 
  • We reached out to our amazing Props Artisan Michael Getz, to get some new furniture for their apartments. 
  • We pushed for replacing all of the beds and bed frames and upgrading the beds to full size. 
  • We worked hard to eliminate barriers for cleaning and provided each floor with cleaning supplies, paper towels, and toilet paper. 
  • We ensured that health insurance would be available for any intern who wanted it
  • We created learning plans and goal setting worksheets for each intern to guide their time with us.

But all of these things didn’t eliminate the food insecurity that many of our interns felt. As I was speaking to a group of colleagues, we tried to push back on the narrative that “we all went through that” because we are now in the place of power and responsibility to ensure that young professionals don’t have to learn in that type of environment. Interns should not be hoarding toilet paper in their room because they can’t afford to share their roll with roommates. 

We work in an art form that reflects back to audiences the essence of human nature through storytelling. We believe that theater increases a person’s empathy. It is time that that empathy be reflected amongst ourselves. 

We are grateful for the tremendous work of We See You, White American Theatre (WSYWAT), the collective of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) theater artists who issued demands in summer 2020 to make our industry more equitable and less harmful. Their labor has brought to the forefront battles that should have been fought years ago. Yes, in the past few years we worked harder to recruit BIPOC interns, but was Trinity Rep as an organization ready to support them? The answer overwhelmingly was no. We did not have BIPOC senior leadership that could mentor these interns, or give them a model of what working in the theater could look like. Have we had some incredibly successful BIPOC interns? Absolutely, yes. Do I think they experienced harm during their time with us? Absolutely, yes. During this time of reflection during COVID-19 while we have not been producing in-person shows, we have been forced to slow down and really look at the choices we make as an industry. We are lucky to have executives who have responded to WSYWAT and listened to their work and advice. We have gotten rid of our “internship” program, or rather, we have updated our title and compensation to match the work that these people have been doing all along. 

Our new apprenticeship program will align more closely with our long term goals of training the next generation of theater artists and administrators in a supported, structured, and safe place. We have the opportunity to break the cycle of teaching bad habits in theater, including no longer encouraging our young learners to always say yes to everything, when they should be developing healthy boundaries. We can teach and model a type of theater that respects learning and development in a way that allows people to succeed, instead of stressing about where their next meal might come from. We are excited to launch the next version of our programming that will provide comprehensive training for young adults in their early career. 

During the 2021-22 Season, we will be working with a small cohort of four apprentices, as this is a year of transition. We hope to expand our program to eight apprentices for the 2022-23 season including: Arts Admin, Sound, Electrics, Scenic/Props, Costumes, Technical and Production Management, Stage Management, and Education. We will continue to provide furnished housing, as well as covering utilities, cleaning supplies, etc. Apprentices will be compensated a living stipend that amounts to approximately $250 each week post tax. They will also be eligible for health insurance. Each apprentice will have a specific mentor who will help them create a learning plan for the season based on the objectives of the department and the goals of the individual. 

I know that if someone hadn’t taken a chance on me a long time ago, recognizing my passion but lack of skills, I would not be where I am today. We hope that through our apprentice program we will be able to foster a passion and love for theater by cultivating learning through experience.