Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous exploitation, or to take arms against a sea of ‘plenty of experience and opportunities, to improve your CV’ and, by opposing, end these unpaid internships.
I’ve done one official unpaid internship – it was when I was 18, before I went to university. However, I spent the first five years of my career doing Fringe and profit share shows, which are essentially the same as doing unpaid internships – £50 for three weeks work anyone?!
I was once the education assistant on a production at Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal for a month. I learnt loads about comedy, making theatre, and about creating show-related workshops to take into colleges. Also, by chatting to the cast and directors whenever I could, I learnt about the realities of being a professional actor (like realising they did other jobs too, and that not all of them were playing the vet on the telly).
In a post credit-crunch and tuition-fees-hiked world, a single internship can now last for up to three years!
It was a brilliant experience and I am glad that I got to do it. My sprightly 18-year-old self did the five hour round commute from Colchester every day and was in rehearsals from ten until six with an hour lunch break. In those ancient times (2002) I could get a return train ticket for £5 a day, and I would walk for two hours a day to save on bus fares to and from the station. I spent about £5 on lunch every day (despite offers of a parental packed lunch) because I wanted to choose something exciting like the other actors did, as I imagined that one day I would be like them; have amazing hair, gym memberships, agents, and stories about working with Nicole Kidman (I estimate that have 2.5 of those four things today). I lived rent free with my parents and worked at Superdrug at the weekends (which just about covered my train fares and lunches). I was happy for that month, before I moved away from home for the first time. I finally felt like an adult.
I spent about £5 on lunch every day because I wanted to choose something exciting like the other actors did, as I imagined that one day I would be like them.
But now, how the landscape has changed. In a post credit-crunch and tuition-fees-hiked world, a single internship can now last for up to three years! A young friend of mine, instead of taking up her place at university, smartly chose to do two internships in six months (one paid, one unpaid) whilst working in the catering industry at weekends. She’s since been employed and on a great wage whilst many of her peers, who left uni in severe amounts of debt, have become unemployed graduates. Another young friend of mine did a six month internship, but quit when she found out that her line manager got a £1000 bonus for each month that she stayed. They said ‘you don’t need to give us any notice, we will have it filled within the day.’ Unfortunately, they were right, and the new intern started that very afternoon!
So many interns working in London, these days, are unpaid – that means that, if you aren’t from here, you can only be an intern if the bank of mum and dad is flush enough to subsidise rent and bills! Alternatively, to intern in one of the world’s most expensive cities, you could save up for a year or two beforehand – live at home, and work full time in a low wage job.
However hard it was in our time, it’s much harder now.
As someone who hires and supervises interns for their company, I appreciate the amount of additional work that goes in: advertising the internships, filtering through many applications, prepping the intern before they begin, teaching them how things work. So, it’s a lot of responsibility for a company to take on, but it’s invaluable to that company, too. Taking interns is a great way to help them progress, and also to help progress an emerging company. An assistant-producer intern that we had in 2015 is coming back to be our co-producer in 2017. There’s also something refreshing about having people new to the industry come and work alongside people who have spent decades in it; new blood, and a new hunger!
Our interns are paid minimum wage, and get a professional reference when they’re finished. We also try to set them up with helpful contacts while they work for us. As of yet, we don’t have the means to cover accommodation. Despite this, three of our six interns have been from outside London, getting by by crashing on friends’ sofas.
I remember one of our interns saying that, after six months of unsuccessfully looking for internships (paid or otherwise), even doing just a week with us was a huge esteem boost. So, it’s important to remember that, however hard it was in our time, it’s much harder now.