Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Listening to the Field

To complete our research on the need and viability for a graduate theatre management program, we spent time talking with local theatres about what they need or want from an intern. With the help of L.A. Stage Alliance, we structured two focus groups of Los Angeles Theatre leaders to gain perspectives from a range of opportunities and experiences. The first afternoon was spent with 8 smaller sized ensemble based theatre companies and the second group of 9 was mostly mid-sized theatres.

Here are some highlights:
Match Passion to Passion: Most organizations feel very adamant that they want interns who are excited and passionate about that particular organization’s mission and work. If a student is more interested in large presenting organizations, it may not be the best fit for them to intern with a smaller ensemble based theatre. The staffs in these theatres typically have been there since the inception of the company and have extreme pride for their work. They were clear in wanting an intern that is going to match their enthusiasm.
Recruitment is a Time Suck: Our theatre colleagues agreed that searching for qualified interns is an endless challenge. It takes a lot of time and energy to locate viable intern candidates and the majority of the theatres would like more help in this regard.
Best Learning Opportunities Happen During the Season: Not only is summer too short, but most of the "juicy" projects that interns crave fall during the season. (There was a suggestion that maybe summer could serve as a training period and then the student could fully immerse themselves into the real work when the season begins.) The amount of time that it takes to train and invest in an intern is significant, and if these students want a deep, rich experience they also need to invest the time in getting oriented, and being available and flexible with their schedules.
Is it an Internship We are Talking About?: The term “internship” came up for debate in both groups. Some argued that students may want more of an "observership" so they can learn and be in the room for lots of various discussions. Some argued that placements would be more of a peer to peer collaboration, especially at the graduate level.
Pass the Cream, Please: Organizations agreed that we want the cream of the crop of emerging professionals to join our working ranks. We want the best of the best students who are committed to our art form and our city. Many of these organizations are short staffed and need people that are going to actually provide quality help to them. In return, the intern will get real life experience that they can apply to future job offerings or maybe even turn into a job offer there at that particular organization.
Ask Not What Theatre Can Do for You...: Theatres want to see tangible results. If they trust interns with vital work for the organization to thrive then the product needs to be useful and viable for that organization to implement.
Connect Theatre Classroom with Theatre Community: Perhaps most importantly, the theatre professionals in our focus groups want interns to see theatre and expose themselves to the art that their management deals with on a day to day basis. Get in the field! They lamented that university curriculum does not necessarily align with what theatre employers are looking for in terms of field experience and knowledge of the art form itself. Students should go see theatre if they are getting a degree in theatre management!

A big special thanks to the following theatres for taking the time from their very full schedules to come and spend an afternoon with us:
24th Street Theatre, Colony Theatre Company, Deaf West Theatre, East West Players, Fountain Theatre, LA Theatre Center, Theatre @ Boston Court, Little Fish Theatre/Shakespeare by the Sea, Blank Theatre Company, Ebony Repertory Theatre, Elephant Theatre Company, Ghost Road Company, Long Beach Playhouse, Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble (LATE), Theatre West, Pacific Resident Theatre, Son of Semele Ensemble


  1. We have been using apprentices at The Blank for nearly ten years, and I think I can safely say that we have developed a way of using this young fresh talent to the benefits of The Blank AND the students. We have found that if the right environment is created it can be a terrific opportunity for both. Yes, it is difficult to manage interns/apprentices but we discovered that the effort it takes to find and train these interns IS worth the effort if they have made a significant commitment to the organization in return. In fact, it wasn't until we "bit the bullet" and took on our first serious interns that we realized how much they can give back to the organization. The first step is of course, the most frightening.

  2. We echo the Blank's experience of finding the right person for our right environment. But it took us a while to discover the value and importance of this synergy to the organization. The 'time suck' is the investment needed in any personnel decision. Since 2002 24th Street Theatre has had 5 interns that we then later hired as staff. It is because we took the time to really assess, interview and then manage what was a qualified candidate. These people, even when moving on in their careers, make 24th Street a part of their 'orbit.' We do projects, collaborations and have hired referrals based on these continued relationships. Interns have been extremely valuable to us.

  3. Long Beach PlayhouseAugust 3, 2011 at 8:56 PM

    I'm really inspired by what The Blank is saying. We are definitely in the trap of needing more help but not having the time to seek the help because we are so shorthanded. It really is a catch-22. But also as someone who benefitted greatly from my own internships in grad school, I know it can be absolutely worth it--from the perspective of the student AND the theatre. Also, I want to participate in a meaningful internship program not just because I need cheap skilled labor, but because it's part of giving back what was given to me by my mentors. They were so generous with their time and knowledge, I want to be able to offer that experience as well.

  4. This conversation that was initiated by Center Theatre Group has stoked a lot of ideas within our company. We currently take interns on periodically, but not through any formal program due to the small nature of our operation. However, in our attempt to grow we can see the benefit for both parties of bringing on a graduate student for a length of time and immersing them in our day to day activities, decisions, etc. Being a smaller company we have a lot of hands on (dive right in) experience to offer and the capacity to GROW. One of our major goals in the next year at the Elephant is to devote more time to management and administration. Sometimes finding the right individuals who are passionate about theatre AND passionate about arts management can be difficult. We look forward to continuing this discussion!

  5. I loved the possibilities that were discussed. There is a great need for what I call "business artists" to take on the challenges of running theatres and other non-profits so that artists can do what they do best--create the art. Los Angeles needs to nurture the business artists of the future so that our arts community can continue to thrive AND be a more integral part of the overall community.

  6. Los Angeles Theatre Center, Paul Stuart GrahamAugust 4, 2011 at 8:06 PM

    We ALL want the cream of the crop of emerging professionals to join our working ranks; however, we need to realize that “the cream” is among the chosen few. It is unrealistic to expect that each theatre will be served with talented emerging arts managers on a regular basis! The cream does rise to the top and as a result many of the best go to the top—to those theatres with the best pay and benefits.
    The next generation of theatre management interns NEED TO GO TO THE THEATRE! Most interns today do not know how to advocate, promote, budget or engage in critical artistic business decision making because they do not know the world of the theater—let alone the world of the play!

  7. One of the ideas that came up for us during the CTG meetings was that there are no cookie cutter models for internships. Every theatre offers a unique set of opportunities, experiences, and requirements. As a "vagabond", i.e. homeless, theatre ensemble, we cannot offer interns the opportunity to work in a large organization or participate in a traditional theatrical season. What we can offer an intern is the chance to observe, support, and participate with an ensemble working close to the ground artistically and collectively. The landscape is shifting and traditional roles and ways of working in the arts (and in the larger culture) are changing rapidly. We need to encourage interns to help invent the future, not to imprint upon them the past.

  8. It was my honor to be part of such an inspiring dialogue. The discussion had a ripple effect within our company, as well. Our biggest challenge in finding interns is challenge #1 listed above: finding people with the right mindset and the passion for our specific kind of theater. We hope to initiate a formal program that will keep the door open for these individuals throughout the year.

    Our theatre company relies on the goodwill and hard work of so many people, and it is only fitting that we transfer this goodwill on to the interns and college students who share our passion. This is one of the ways we can become closer to our community.

  9. It was an absolute inspiration to listen to and exchange ideas with all the participating organizations; thank you for the opportunity to participate and learn. We were unbelievably fortunate to have two stellar, and I mean stellar interns this summer. The key was taking the time to interview and have a meaningful discussion about expectations on both sides, our mission and any concerns either they are we had. It takes time and can be laborious but in the end, it pays off big time. Many of our interns have returned, some have ended up working for us and we've definitely cultivated a loyal group who continue to support us in any way they can. One of our summer interns plans to go to graduate school for arts administration and if she follows her plan, she will be an excellent one! She is not only a theatre rat but is highly intelligent, great with people and has vision. She is our hope and future and I look forward to tracking her career in the arts.

  10. Like many others have said in their posts… working with interns is challenging. However, don’t we have the responsibility to share our knowledge and give back? At Little Fish Theatre/Shakespeare by the Sea we have dedicated ourselves to taking the time necessary to support an intern, so that they become a productive member of our summer staff. It takes time and a great deal of energy, but it has paid off for the past three summers. These interns are undergraduate level students, who are funded by the Los Angeles County Arts Commissions’ (LACAC) Summer Internship Program. We would not be able to host an intern without the funding from the LACAC. In our discussions of working with and structuring a graduate level theatre management internship, we did not talk much about the finical impact of hosting an intern. There’s the staff time, office expenses (computer, internet and supplies) and the intern’s stipend. My experience has been that an intern who comes with their own funding stream will be more successful then one who needs to be funded by scraping together the funding through other sources. However, it really boils down to a commitment from the organization. To host an intern, at any level, the organization must ask itself can we commit to giving theses individuals an experiential learning opportunity? At Little Fish Theatre/Shakespeare by the Sea we have benefited as an organization by committing to our interns. It was powerful to listen to others’ experiences of working with interns. I am grateful to CTG for facilitating the conversation.

  11. Thank you Center Theatre Group for hosting this forum. One other thing that was discussed - at least with the smaller ensembles - was the notion that it might be incredibly beneficial both for the intern and the host company if the internship included a CTG "observership." The idea was that interns would spend time at CTG observing the best practices of an organizationally sophisticated company and then leveraging the knowledge gained in that observership while working as a management intern for the smaller company. In this way, the intern would be able to make valuable connections and have a meaningful experience that gave them experience both in the small theaters (which will rarely lead directly to paid work but is great for flexing creative muscle and meeting local artists) and with CTG (where they are more likely to find the kind of connections that will lead directly to paid work in their field). The smaller company gets to benefit from organizational knowledge that they might not otherwise have had easy access to, and CTG gets to tie deeper into the native theatre community while incubating future leaders for their own company.

    Tom Burmester
    Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble

  12. I have been most lucky to have had wonderful interns over the years, and have been grateful to be a participant in developing career paths, and continuing communication with the students that have worked with me. These discussions were very valuable, and I hope that a program can be developed that will allow students to create very focused proposals, rather than simple applications, that will not only help support their career goals, but also be of great benefit for the theatre they will be working with. I am in favor of exploring an “observership” model that would allow a student to participate in the strategic operations of a theatre in a deeper way. I think understanding why decisions are made, and how budgets may or may not affect those decisions is very valuable, and would certainly aid in strengthening a base of arts administrators who can appreciate the relationships between the money and the art – a reality that cannot be avoided. Trent Steelman/Executive Director/The Colony Theatre

  13. Ebony Repertory Theatre

    Thank you CTG for inviting Ebony Repertory Theatre to participate in this dialogue. The concept of preparing individuals to manage and administrate arts organizations is exciting. To my knowledge, these programs are just gaining popularity amongst academia and students.

    I have been working with interns for the past 10 years and I find that the results can run the full gamut. The further an intern is in his/her studies, the more focus, experience and passion they seem to bring with them. Having a “clearing house” to go to for “qualified” interns would be very helpful with regard to saving time and the energy expended in locating the “right” intern.

    I do agree that the "time suck" is a drag, especially if the internship is 10 weeks or less. By the time you orientate your intern and get them started on a project, unless they are just doing reception work, it is time for them to go. The work that small theater organizations need assistance in requires long term internships. An internship that lasts for 1-2 years would be ideal if the match is perfect. The timing of the internship is important as it relates to the work that the intern is doing. I personally can use interns all year round for different aspects of the organizations needs.

    The title of the position, internship vs observership, does not really matter. The best situation is one in which there is a win-win. I find that engaging interns in open dialogue regarding the organization can lead to beneficial exchange and increased productivity.

    There is a limited amount of “cream,” so I look for good matches… personality, goals, experience, personal circumstances, and interest in the organization, not just a “job.” I interview interns with a dual focus and I am very specific about what we are looking for and what we can offer. This helps me to get the “cream” or the layer just below! If we are a good match, the probability that the intern will contribute to the well being of the organization and the organization will afford the intern a fulfilling experience, encouraging them to pursue a career in arts administration, is very high. Interns are looking to be compensated for their work. Finding the funds to pay interns is a challenge for most of the arts organizations who were around the table, so finding a way to compensate focused, passionate interns is a key to the success of any intern program. Gayle Hooks, Managing Director, Ebony Repertory Theatre.

  14. Thanks again for the invite to the roundtable. As I mentioned then, at the Fountain Theatre, perhaps due to our intimacy and triumvirate approach to management, expending energy to obtain, train, and oversee interns has proven to be unproductive for us. It has nothing to do with the eagerness or talents of the intern, or our abilities to manage, but when you're wearing multiple hats on a daily basis, to take the time to step someone through particular processes, only to have that person leave shortly after, is ultimately counter-productive for us. In a true-life-worst-case-scenario, an intern accidentally wiped out our entire patron database, which took me nearly 4 months of intensive work to rebuild! After that, to be honest, I pretty much soured on the intern concept and haven't really pursued it since.
    All best to everyone. May your art rule your calendar!