In his recent article “The War Against Youth,” Stephen Marche levels three major accusations against the Baby Boomers:
1. They are hoarding resources for themselves and depriving the young of their fair share of government funding.
2. They exploit young labor through un/underpaid internships.
3. They are selling impractical degrees, oversaturating the job market, and getting rich off the high cost of education.
Sadly, the theater community, which prides itself on its progressive values, is just as complicit in this attack on the young (and the poor) as the rest of the country. In this article, I want to examine the applicability of Marche’s accusations to business practices in the theater, and I hope to offer several solutions that can bring this unnecessary war to a swift conclusion.
Accusation 1: Hoarding of Resources and Deprivation of Government Funding
Marche notes that the federal government spends seven times as much on the elderly as on the young. This inequity, however, does not just affect individuals. It also applies to institutions. For the 2012 fiscal year, the NEA awarded $3,216,000 in grants to 119 theater companies. Out of the 119 institutions receiving grants, only 7 (5.88%) have been in existence for less than ten years, and only $131,000 (4.07%) of the $3,216,000 went to these companies. For companies younger than five years, the news is even worse. ArtsEmerson, whose grant technically went to Emerson College (founded 1880), is the only company in existence less than five years to receive government funding.
The message from the government could not be clearer: if you are just starting out, do not come to us for help! Not surprisingly, most new companies are created by individuals under the age of thirty–five, so it is the young who are disproportionately affected by this bias. New voices often require new institutions, and new institutions certainly require funding. This means that our current approach to grant making jeopardizes the ability of new voices to be heard. The NEA could avoid this by allotting ten percent of its grants and funds to companies that have existed for less than ten years. It could also enact a policy of awarding at least three grants annually to companies created within the last five years.
Accusation 2: Exploitation of Young Labor through Un/Underpaid Internships
So much has been written about the exploitative nature of internships in both this publication and others that I am hesitant to belabor the point; however, I would be remiss if I did not introduce a few statistics about internships in the theater world.
1. Out of the sixty LORT companies that advertise professional internships/apprenticeships/fellowships, only thirty–four of these companies (56.66%) claim to pay interns a weekly stipend. Five of these thirty–four companies pay technical interns, but not administrative interns.
2. The average weekly stipend offered by these companies is $149.50. The highest weekly stipend is $400 and is offered by the Arden Theatre. The Huntington and the Roundabout come close to the Arden’s compensation package by offering hourly wages that just exceed the minimum wage. These are the only three LORT companies that offer full-time interns compensation that exceeds the minimum wage. (Note: eight of the companies who advertise a stipend do not publicly disclose the amount. It is possible that one or more of these companies offer a stipend that surpasses the minimum wage.)
3. Only eleven out of sixty (18.33%) LORT companies offer housing to all full-time interns/apprentices/fellows.
4. Only one out of sixty LORT companies (the Arden) offers health insurance to all full-time interns/apprentices/fellows.
How dire is the situation? Well, one of the country’s most reputable theaters includes instructions for getting on food stamps in its welcome packet. We can do better than this! As a community, we should not be telling the next generation of theater artists that they must first get on food stamps if they wish to break into the profession. Furthermore, we should not be limiting internship opportunities to those whose parents can bankroll their living expenses for an entire year. Such an approach strangles diversity in the field.
So what can we do? We can start by cutting down the number of interns while giving those hired a more comprehensive, well-rounded experience. Most companies offer internships in specialized areas (artistic, literary, education, development, marketing, technical production, finance, etc.). Why not ask interns to pick two or three areas of concentration? With the budgetary constraints of the twenty-first century, theater artists will need to perform more administrative and backstage functions. Conversely, arts administrators who can speak the language of artists will have more credibility during budgetary and marketing discussions. Cutting the number of interns on staff by half would also mean a doubling in intern wages, opening doors for applicants whose parents can’t foot the cost of their internship.
We can also grow partnerships between universities, foundations, and regional theaters. Funded by the Kemper Foundation, the Court Theatre in Chicago offers University of Chicago students a tremendous professional opportunity and fair economic compensation. In what resembles a work-study arrangement, students can make $1000 a quarter doing eleven hours of work a week. Sadly, this arrangement is in stark contrast to the “deal” received by most student interns around the country. The typical theater-university partnership involves student interns working ten or more hours a week, receiving no compensation, and getting a course credit that they have to pay for. It is a win-win for theaters and schools and a big middle finger to undergraduate students. Theaters win because they get free labor. The universities win because students are paying anything from $250 to $1100 to the school even though the internship costs the university nothing. If the university is investing nothing financially, why can’t it give students credits without charging them (Who has heard of fee for no service?); and in those cases where the university does invest financially in students’ internships, why can’t theaters, universities, and students split the cost equally as opposed to making students cover one hundred percent of the cost?
Accusation 3: Profiting from the Peddling of Impractical Degrees
I write this last section knowing that university system is the biggest employer of theater artists in the country. I write this last section knowing that in all likelihood I would have left the profession had I not recently been hired to teach full-time at a community college. I know I am biting the hand that feeds me, and I understand what is at stake when I talk about reducing the number of graduate and, to a lesser extent, undergraduate programs. It means fewer artists who can support themselves doing what they love, which in turn means fewer artists altogether. At the same time, we must ask ourselves if we have erected these programs to employ teachers or to help students find employment.
When I started work at a community college, I familiarized myself with the recently passed Gainful Employment Act. Directed primarily at for-profit institutions and community colleges, this act requires new programs to prove that their students will be able to find work in their field after graduating. If a program cannot prove this, it is not eligible for Title IV funding (Federal Student Financial Aid). The Gainful Employment Act also stipulates that either thirty–five percent of graduates must be current on their loan payments or that annual loan payments must not exceed twelve percent of the average graduate’s income. If an existing program fails to meet this requirement, it loses Title IV funds. I wonder how MFA programs would fare if they were subjected to these same standards. MFA programs should start wondering about this, too, because there are going to be a litany of new regulations on “superfluous” and “impractical” degrees when the student loan bubble explodes later this decade.
The Gainful Employment Act is the first step in tying program outcomes to an institution’s economic wellbeing. For too long, post-secondary institutions have raked in cash without being held accountable for their failure to produce graduates who can enter the workforce. When talking about healthcare reform, almost everyone agrees that medical fees should correlate to health outcomes. Why, then, don’t we link student loan payments and tuition to educational outcomes when we talk about reforming our country’s graduate programs? I believe every MFA program should charge a flat yearly tuition (approximately $4500 upfront). Following graduation, students should over the next twelve years pay nine percent of their theater, theater teaching, and film-related income to their university. If a school produces successful, working graduates in the field, it will have nothing to worry about; however, if it is contributing to the oversaturation of the market and selling useless degrees, then it will be forced to close it doors.
Some may think of this proposal as cold, Social Darwinism. In fact, it is the opposite. It forces professional training programs to invest in their students while they are students and after they graduate. Currently, a school has no financial incentive to take the employability of their graduates seriously. They get their money regardless; however, if a school’s income becomes married to the success of its graduates, then graduates have advocates in the field for life. Such a proposal also eliminates situations like the one revealed to me by a colleague. This colleague, who works at a respected graduate school, disclosed that many students who attend his/her institution are unwanted second- and third-tier applicants who are accepted only after their preferred applicants opt for more prestigious programs. This practice is predatory, and it needs to stop. If a school doesn’t think a student has the ability to succeed in the profession, then it has no business taking him/her for tens of thousands of dollars. It’s a con, and it dilutes the quality of education. Rather than accepting a certain quota of applicants every year, schools should accept and train only the students they believe in. Of course, this won’t happen until schools stop receiving all their money upfront.
It is time for us to take a hard look at our business practices. One of the great contributions of theater is its use of storytelling to promote equity and decency, yet our treatment of the young fails to live up to those ideals. If we’re not careful, the next generation may not stick around long enough to pick up the torch.