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June 13, 2013


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Something I've always wondered: would framing theatre jobs as volunteer positions be a more ethical choice than unpaid internships?

Windlass Snow

"With the price of renting space to do a show in as high as it is in this town, there's often not a lot of money left over to pay folks." I'm pretty sure that 95% of the problems in theatre would go away if the rent wasn't too damn high.

Aaron Andersen

Here's how I see the difference between volunteers and unpaid interns.

I work in a nonprofit arts & culture organization (not a theater) that is heavily dependent on volunteers, particularly our biggest revenue-generating activity. The revenue is used to subsidize other programs that are not revenue-generating, and of course to pay salaries like mine. The work of these volunteers is of such high quality, and the training regimen for these volunteers is so intensive, that we could never afford the quality we currently get if we were paying for it. Our product simply could achieve the quality that it has if we were paying these volunteers, because we'd have to cut back drastically on training. And we wouldn't get to use that money for other programs.

But they're different from interns, because even though they are learning new skills, these particular volunteers are not working with our organization to advance their careers. Most are retired. Most are highly educated and privileged. Most do this because they really want to. They're doing the rest of us a favor, and they know it. The gracious ones don't remind us of this constantly. And they have a lot of control over their creative output, and are a self-governing group.

I used to be on the Board of a theater company, where the staff and artists were paid so little that is was nearly volunteer work. With few exceptions, however, they had a great deal of creative input in what they were doing for the company. They had opportunities with the company that they wouldn't have had with a company that could pay them enough to cover more than their train fare.

In my view, the unethical unpaid internships don't offer either the gratification of donating work only because you want to, nor the control over one's output. Even if you called them volunteer positions, it's that lack of control and agency that turns you from a volunteer into an unpaid laborer.


Thanks Aaron. That makes it a LOT clearer.

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