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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Dreams to the Highest Bidder

Not long ago there was some discussion of class around the 'sphere. Recently, I became aware of a worrisome trend that puts the inequities of economic opportunity in high relief for me.

Many non-profits make very good use of unpaid internships. They're an opportunity for a young, inexperienced artist or professional to make connections and get real-life experience in their field. Unpaid interns provide many companies with free labor and a steady supply of enthusiastic hands, ready to do things like take out the trash, their eyes on being hired or building their resume.

While there's nothing wrong with this specifically (people are free to volunteer however they might choose) it does depend on a certain amount of economic freedom. If you're able to work for 30 hours unpaid during your week at a not-for-profit, chances are you've got sources of income that allow for that to be possible. I'm sure there are many who simply never sleep, and I've got no hard facts that these opportunities go only to affluent people. It's just common sense that affluence helps one take unpaid work.

That being said... as internships become more and more necessary in order to secure actual work in any given field, capitalism has found its way to the world of the volunteer worker. Organizations like University of Dreams locate internships for students for a fee.

(According to their website $500 dollars for domestic internships, $1000 for international internships.)

What will this mean? Where once it was a question of the ability to support oneself while working for free, it will increasingly become a question of paying for the opportunity to work for free. Who will get squeezed out of this? Those with limited financial resources. There are, according to the University of Dreams, loans available to cover the cost of the unpaid internship placement firm, (on a website horrifically titled www.myrichuncle.com). Further debt for those who, I would assume, are already taking on a great deal of debt just to attend four years of college? Why not? Without spending the money, they'll be passed over for those able shell out.

What's the solution here? Not entirely sure.

First of all, my understanding is that these search firms are servicing larger industries at the moment (music production is what was discussed when I first heard about this.) That doesn't mean a trend such as this stays in that stratosphere forever, but it doesn't seem to have hit things like Theater as of yet. (Correct me, someone, if you know better...)

I'd hope that no arts organization would use a firm like this to locate its interns. We should resist the urge to reward those who might pay for opportunities that they haven't, by way of merit, earned.

I would also hope that Arts Organizations consider that a heavy unpaid mid-afternoon schedule might punish those who need to take full-time work simply to pay rent. It's a discussion worth having internally. For the sake of inexpensive (or free) labor, one should consider how available your organization is to those who must make money elsewhere.


Scott Walters said...

Excellent post, Matt -- and a painful observation. We subscribe to the "meritocracy" dream, but the reality may be something much different.

Malachy Walsh said...

There's no doubt about it. The unpaid internship is a disaster.

I think I've said it elsewhere before, but Lewis Lapham used to rant against the privileges of the fortunate almost every month from his editorial pulpit at HARPER'S.

Getting out of college, it was a place I wanted to work. At the time, they offered internships (mostly working on the Index). The internship required that you live in NYC for 3 months without pay.

I cancelled my subscription.

I've since learned that Lapham was himself a child of privilege - oil money had enabled him to do many things someone from a middle class family like mine could never do.

LBM said...

I couldn't agree more Matt! I myself am a product of an internship paid at such a low rate that it didn't even cover transportation. I worked second jobs bartending and barista-ing late at night all through the 9 month internship, but I still had to rely partly on the largess of my family to make it all the way through and pay rent.

I now hire our company interns and we pay them at minimum wage. One small step to make it more accessible to those without family financial support - BUT - we often hire people with previous internship experience - thereby still playing into the the larger, dangerous cycle.

How do we make sure that people from all financial backgrounds get to take advantage of these internships where they can learn valuable skills, make even more valuable contacts, and generally get their foot in the door?