Internal Conflict

Venice Theatre, whom I last mentioned when their open secret of paying some but not all performers went public, has decided to modify the script some more. They announced a move hinted at in the previous Jay Handelman article on the subject of payment–acting internships:

The chosen actors will get housing and a small weekly stipend. They also will be expected to audition for several mainstage, Stage II or cabaret shows, where they will compete against other local performers. [Producing Director Allan] Kollar said there are no expectations that the interns get leading roles. Auditions will remain open to all interested actors.

The interns will also take part in a variety of outreach programs, presenting brief shows at community and retirement centers and schools in the area.

The first few times (that I know for sure) I was in a Venice show with a paid performer, those performers were Equity actors. It was a pretty solid line: union received paychecks, and had their names marked specially in the program, making their status clear. It wasn’t until later that I discovered non-union volunteers were receiving paychecks in some cases, as well, which is where things start getting incredibly muddy.

On one level, I think this new program is perhaps meant as an attempt to re-establish that “professional” line. Over here are the people who will be paid. They went through special criteria to get on the books. They are, effectively, staff. Or, at least, they’re meant to be regarded as such.

I’m especially interested in the comment about the roles interns will play in shows. In what I’m assuming is a bid to assuage volunteer fears and head off attrition, the theatre wants to make sure folks know that interns aren’t guaranteed any kind of lead roles. They’re auditioning just like everyone else. And I’m sure most directors will try to be fair about that kind of thing.

Of course, it seems like it would speak especially ill of either the applicant pool or Venice’s choices if their interns aren’t the kind of performers who are going to be in contention for significant roles throughout the year. Especially when they’re picking the interns knowing full well their performing needs for the season.

Even tossing that aside, it’s hard not to expect that interns won’t be used regularly, lead or no. Not using them would seem to be a rather horrible ROI, after all. If they aren’t the leads, then it only stands to reason they’d be filling out the ensemble of Venice’s larger shows. Which brings us to the same, chafing situation as has happened before if you’re paying ensemble members and asking your leads to do it all for free.

Let me stop right now: ensemble is hard. It’s exhausting and frantic and often filled with the kind of nightmare quick changes and whiplash shifts in character that no featured role outside A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder will experience. This isn’t about belittling any of that.

However, if we’re talking about teaching folks about professional theatre: barring hazard or specialty pay, in professional theatre, isn’t ensemble remuneration lower than that of featured performers? Not only, then, might that situation wind up rubbing featured performers badly; it seems to be actively working against the stated intent of the internship, which is to prepare the interns for the reality of a professional career.

I’ll give a thumbs up to this inasmuch as this program, on the books and publicized, provides the kind of transparency that I think a community organization should have. It’s out there and everyone knows about it. Or, at the very least, folks would have a hard time pretending anyone was hiding it.

Of course, this kind of publicity is also one of the continuing frustrations. You know, hooray for bringing it out in the light, but I’m not sure this does much of anything to change the message to volunteers or the frustrations I outlined last time.

It’s also hard not to notice this announcement rather neatly sidesteps questions about how much other hiring might still happen. In any event, I’ll be especially interested to see how this inaugural class shakes out, both in the way Venice implements and uses the interns, and the way volunteer performers respond to them.

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