When you’re walking across London in bone-chilling, bra-soaking, sideways rain to fix someone else’s problem. When you’re not learning anything (apart from how to catch pneumonia) and you’re not getting paid.
I’m not bitter. No really, I’m quite honestly not.
That said, it’s true that in the past I have taken on the role of the appreciative, ever nodding dogsbody on a few too many occasions for very little or no financial compensation. The general idea behind offering to do these things, at the time, was to learn something new, to make contacts, and to broaden my experience of theatre in its various forms.
But when does an ‘internship’ or ‘work experience opportunity’ stop being useful to the person making the cups of tea, picking up other people’s over-the-counter drugs, and scooping poop for the director’s dog, and start being a genuine opportunity for free manual labour on the part of the employer?
Sometimes when I discuss what I have been up to with certain ‘non-theatre’ friends and family, they are shocked and occasionally saddened. It’s often difficult to shake the feeling that there are some middle-level ‘theatre success story’ types who have reached where they wanted to be by stomping ever so confidently, bedecked in ridiculous vintage couture, on the heads of those grateful interns following closely behind.
Let me try to reassure those troubled friends, and myself. True, many theatre companies in the UK rely on a multitude of unpaid enthusiasts, but, sometimes, that’s just great. In these situations, everyone is working towards the same goal for the simple reason that they feel genuinely passionate about whatever bit of tut is being put on the stage. And that’s fine, so long as you have the savings/pocket money/hassle-free, fast approval, payday loan to allow you to put food on the table.
In addition, I have done some seriously useful work experience jobs. And when I say useful, I really do mean useful to me. I was given what I still perceive to be a genuine opportunity, based on very little experience on my part, by an opera company who treated me much like a paid employee. In this way, yes, I was taken advantage of, but I also learnt how to do the job, on the job.
Of course, we can never know just which ‘unpaid opportunity’ (as many of the familiar job sites advertise them) may lead to something really pivotal in the formation of a successful career, but with just a little bit of hindsight I think it becomes painfully clear exactly which of them didn’t.
I admit that this post doesn’t aim to plumb the depths of the unpaid internship ‘situation’, which has become a significant issue throughout the arts sector. It’s been debated at large across most of the usual reputable news channels. All I might offer is my own viewpoint, and I suppose that viewpoint is somewhat conflicted.
Without unpaid work experience placements I wouldn’t have evolved, Pokémon-style, into the Charmeleon that I am now. But, from where I am now, I can appreciate how frustrating it is when a company chooses a clueless unpaid intern over employing a qualified stage manager, for example.
What I would say with some conviction is that it is extremely important to learn when you really have to say “no, I will absolutely not pay my own travel costs to come and work for you shovelling shit on a Sunday for absolutely no monetary compensation and little more than a half-hearted nod by way of a thank you”.
We must try to make a reasonable assessment of what our time is worth. But, as long as people like past-me keep agreeing to the bonds of the unpaid ‘opportunity’, companies will keep relying on them to survive.