For stage-struck would-be theater professionals, the best thing about internships is the chance to gain real-world experience. That's also the worst thing, since the aspiring students usually get to experience the organization's most dreary and thankless tasks, with no paycheck to show for it.
For instance, a former management intern who wishes to remain anonymous describes her efforts to organize the offices of a mid-sized Atlanta theater: "My boss for the summer directed me to one of the staff's messy, messy desks to 'grab a pile of headshots.' After rooting around in a pile of papers — uncovering a computer, three cups of moldy coffee, and an old sock — I discovered a stack of headshots, some from many years ago. I spent the next eight days alone in the basement office entering each actor's information into the computerized casting database."
"You wouldn't believe some things that actors consider 'special skills,'" she continues. "One actor listed that she could eat ramen noodles through her nose, and another claimed that he had the ability to portray 'emotions,' and then listed them: 'happy,' 'sad,' 'angry,' etc. It was a dismal experience, but at least I got the important-sounding title 'Casting Database Coordinator' out of it.'"
Internships might not always live up to the dreams of artistic-minded young students, but they can play a crucial role in sustaining the theater community with infusions of new blood and youthful vigor. Especially during an endless economic slump, Atlanta theater as we know it wouldn't exist without them.
Most Atlanta theaters offer some kind of hands-on training program for college students and occasionally high schoolers. The office gophers of today can be the theatrical leadership of tomorrow: notable former Atlanta theater interns include director David Crowe, Aurora Theatre marketing director Al Stilo, playwright Steve Yockey, Georgia Shakespeare box office manager Victoria Smith and actor Jordan Craig, who plays the lead in Actor's Express' season opener, the musical Spring Awakening.
The Alliance Theatre's acting internship program cultivated a generation of talents from 1981-1998, including actors Carolyn Cook, Tess Malis Kincaid, Georgia Shakespeare artistic director Richard Garner and Oscar-winning actor/director Ray McKinnon. The Alliance suspended the acting portion of the program in 1998 when the playhouse couldn't secure a funding partnership with a local university, but it still offers internships in management, education and other "back of the house" jobs.
The least-loved tasks seem to be cleaning the toilets or doing the company laundry. Interns seem especially valuable at bringing old-school arts organizations up to speed with 21st-century technology. The Atlanta Opera's Education Manager Emmalee Iden says one intern helped set up the Atlanta Opera blog, while a new one this year will be specifically dedicated to social networking. (Apparently, you can't spell "Internet" without "intern.")
The Alliance does provide performance experience through its annual Collision Project, in which a playwright-in-residence helps about 20 high school students create and perform their own work. "There are plenty of those teens-talking-about-their-problems programs," says Rosemary Newcott, the Alliance's artistic director for youth. "This involves a collision with a classic text, so it has a literary component. One year they took Around the World in 80 Days and made it Around Atlanta on 80 Dollars, which conveyed the city through the eyes of the kids."
Smaller playhouses find interns even more valuable. Horizon Theatre has had as many 26 interns in a single summer, as well as a dozen post-graduate apprentices working from fall through spring. "We rely on them to crew our shows," says Horizon Intern Company Director Jennifer Bauer-Lyons. "They're backstage crew, they assist at the front of the house, and they do projects that we can't get to earlier in the year."
Interns also contribute in unexpected ways. "Last year at Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery, a stage management intern named Shane had all eight of the women's roles down. He'd attend understudy rehearsals and could deliver all the lines as the actresses would do them," says Bauer-Lyons.
Georgia Shakespeare's internship possibly has the greatest cachet of Atlanta's programs, since "Alias" star Jennifer Garner interned with the company in 2000, and funded this year's program with her husband Ben Affleck. Kyle Brumley, a 21-year-old theater major at Oglethorpe, just finished his summer acting internship, which provided him with a huge amount of Equity stage time.
Brumley not only played Mowgli as the lead in this summer's children's show The Jungle Book, he also appeared in all three of the theater's repertory projections. He was on the sprite team of The Tempest, played dual roles in Antony and Cleopatra and, as an assistant stage manager for Noises Off, had a brief, unscripted onstage appearance in the transition between Acts Two and Three.
"The internship was part of my package as a freshman coming into Oglethorpe. So I've been looking forward to it for three years," says Brumley, who plans to open his own theater company when he gets out of school. In 2009, Brumley played some tiny roles in Georgia Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and recalls, "It was my first experience in a professional rehearsal hall, and I was so nervous, I was trembling. This year, I could relax into it."
Many Georgia Shakespeare company members work at Oglethorpe, which can be a mixed blessing for students. "It's very intimidating to act with someone who has been — and continues to be — one of your teachers. But it's very cool to create things with them," he says. Joe Knezevich, one of the theater's mainstay actors, directed Brumley in a school play his freshman year. "He was the first to call me out for 'indicating,' for showing an emotion rather than feeling it. He told me, 'You don't have to show us that you're angry, just be angry.'"
Newcott says the theater's interns and Collision participants discover the demands about a career in the performing arts. "I think there's a glamour about a big regional house, like they'll be walking around seeing stars in the hallways," she says. "Maybe Stephen King will come by! And that does happen — this summer's class got to rub shoulders with Pearl Cleage. But there's also a work ethic here — it's no picnic."
Bauer-Lyons acknowledges that internships caution people considering a life in the theater. "We want to make sure they know that it's not a 9-to-5 job, or that you just work the show and then go home. With any kind of nonprofit, but especially the performing arts, you can start your day early, end late and maybe work weekends. No matter what your job title, you can be asked to do something else. Even if you're in development, you might get asked to sweep or mop the stage."
Interns receive hands-on training and make potential contacts for their future career, but make valuable contributions in doing the grunt work, freeing up the staffers for other jobs and generally bringing youthful enthusiasm. And to counter the "thankless" reputation of internships, allow me to speak for the theater community (and my own publication, for that matter) and say, Thanks interns. We couldn't do it without you.
By the way, the copier's out of paper again.
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