I’ve held my fair share of internships, and I’ve also managed some internships. Let us for the moment assume that internships are useful and reasonably non-exploitative and a necessary thing to go through. Which is a big assumption given all the class action lawsuits currently surrounding internship programs. Nonetheless, here are ten thoughts I probably would’ve found useful to know going in.
1) Do your research. Don’t just apply indiscriminately to any old internship. Find out what kind of plays these theaters produce, and find a place that actually excites you. Because there’s nothing more depressing than interning for a theater that you don’t even believe in. Then read A TON of plays by living writers. One of the first questions the theater will ask is, “Who are your favorite playwrights?” This is a tribal thing. Artists love connecting with other artists through the plays and playwrights they love in common, and if you come out saying, “Shakespeare and Ibsen,” that’s gonna be a big bummer. If you come out saying, “I love Sarah Ruhl and Sheila Callaghan” to Steppenwolf or “I love Tracey Letts” to Soho Rep that too might be a bit of a bummer. Research the theaters, read a ton of plays, see a lot of theater, and come in with a wealth of knowledge about the theater that’s being written this century.
2) Big theaters, small theaters. If you intern for a big theater, there are benefits to that: a sense of how a big theater works, exposure to fancy artists, a line on your resume. But your experience is likely to be highly specialized (i.e. casting interns only work in casting, and marketing interns only work in marketing). If you intern for a tiny theater, you get more direct exposure to the decision-makers, a holistic sense of how the entire theater works, and the possibility of a more versatile, well-rounded experience. Both of these are totally valid, so it’s really up to you to decide what kind of experience would be most useful to you at this phase of your career. Don’t just rule out the small theaters because they’re not MTC.
3) You’re there to learn their process, not there to revamp their process. You probably have some awesome ideas about how their theater could run much better. But context is everything, and at this point they’re not ready or willing to listen to you, because you’re just the intern. So for now just soak in their process, learn from it, dream up better ways of doing things, and implement your ideas years later when people are ready to listen.
4) Your job as an intern is to be quietly awesome. Do the job you were asked to do. Do it exceedingly well, inject your personality without being annoying, go beyond the job when you can, and that’s really all you can do. The theater and the professionals within it are not there to be teachers, they’re not there to be mentors, and they’re not there to answer all of your questions. They’re probably super-stressed-out about the theater they’re making and don’t have the head space to take you in. The best impression you can possibly make – the thing that will open people up into taking a personal interest in you – is by being quietly awesome at the job you’ve been asked to do.
5) You will do things beneath your station. You will be sold on all the exciting perks of the internship and yet at some point you will find yourself digging through a broom closet going, “I went to f#cking college, I’ve been working my ass off doing independent theater, and yet here I am taking out trash and cleaning up after people who don’t even seem that much more talented than me.” Um… sorry for that, but that is an internship.
6) Don’t be a serial intern. Don’t jump from internship to internship, theater to theater. Even though it may seem like forward progress, it’s not. At some point, at the point at which you’re really not learning anymore, internships become pure existential punishment. The structure that an internship provides can be comforting, but you have to force yourself out of the cycle and become known for your art and not for your admin.
7) There is no implied future relationship between you and the theater. The internship experience holds its intrinsic value and that’s all there is to it. If you go in there thinking that after your internship the theater now owes you something, you will be disappointed. They probably won’t go to your show, they might not read your script, they might not even REMEMBER you. The theater is offering no promises to you other than the hard knocks knowledge you take from them. Anything else is gravy.
8) Where you come up is usually not where you live. I’ve largely not gotten any opportunities from the theaters where I interned. That’s frustrating, because you’re like, “Dude you know me. Why won’t you give me a break?” And the reason is that in their mind you are the intern. “How can you be a legitimate artist? You took out my trash!” But then when you get all famous they’re all like, “OMG! I knew you from way back when! Get back here!” So down the line, that connection to the theater may be valuable. But in the short term, you’ve got to take what you’ve learned and prove yourself elsewhere. Effed up as it is, the place where you interned will not be your champion.
9) They need you more than you need them. Theaters are super-underfunded and they need interns to perform menial labor. They need you to grab education grants. But you are more interesting than you know. If you get that internship, great! If you don’t, no big deal. They need bodies. You are more than a body. It’s actually super-low-stakes; you don’t need that internship to ensure your career in the theater.
10) There is no shortcut to working in the trenches. Do an internship or two and then get out. Make your own art, do tiny theater in black boxes that nobody sees, self-produce, build up a network of like-minded artists and rise alongside them, and get better at what you do until your skills and your voice are undeniable. Nobody goes, “Man that intern was such a great intern. Let’s give them the big contract.” So do your internship. Meet a few fancy people and be cool with leaving them alone for a few years until you’re fancy too. It’s all about context, so go out there and shift the context, play by play, as you seek out a community of artists who sees you for who you are, and what you will be.