March, 2020 Issue

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Time Between the School Years: Guiding Technical Theatre Students to Summer Stock Theatre

by Anastasia Goodwin, MFA

    Summer stock theatre in America is an educational backbone of the industry. It’s where students and early career professionals have a chance to meet people actively working in the field, hone their skills, make some connections, and bridge the gap between classroom and real-world experience. At least, that’s what summer stock is supposed to be: a place where camaraderie and somewhat camp-like atmosphere allow for dedication and some elbow grease to blossom into wonderful works of communal art, frequently in a beautiful natural setting. No doubt, most of us who have become technical theatre educators can recall a few fond memories of shows mounted, parties attended, and creative bonds formed in such environments.
    And yet, many of us can also remember the side of summer stock theatre that we wouldn’t wish on our students, or indeed, anyone. Work hours so long that people got hurt. Demands placed on shops that were so unreasonable that people walked out. And occasionally, the tone from artistic leadership that ranged from mildly disrespectful to openly abusive. As the season is upon us, many of our students come to us for guidance on how to approach looking for and accepting summer stock work. No doubt, we all know a few great organizations that we would love for them to become part of. But more frequently, a student approaches us (or sends an email) asking, “I just got offered a position at Theatre So-and-So – should I accept it or look around some more?” As I pondered these queries, I came up with this list of things to offer up for our students’ consideration. No doubt, the list is not exhaustive, but I believe it’s a good place to start.

1. Compensation, when working hours and so-called “benefits” are taken into account.
We all understand that most people don’t go into the theatre to make lots and lots of money, and it is perhaps a given that summer stock theatre is not going to be able to give one the opportunity to build up savings or make extravagant purchases. However, I do not feel that it would be unreasonable to expect to at least break even on basic living expenses. That means the lowest-paid positions should still be making close to minimum wage. And here is where things tend to get murky: most companies list their wages as a weekly salary. So, the biggest question to ask is, how many hours does the company expect its employees to put in? $300 a week looks a whole lot different than $6.25 an hour, assuming a 48-hour work week, and definitely much different than $5 an hour, assuming a 60-hour one. We have all heard of summer stock ending up being upwards of 80 hours a week or so, which drives the wage further down (in case of this example, to $3.75 an hour). Such an overwhelming schedule also leaves no time for grocery shopping; so if meals are not provided and if company housing doesn’t have kitchens one must assume eating out for every meal, which can add up to a considerable monthly bill. It is very important that we as educators make sure that our students ask the necessary questions to fully understand the compensation scale that they would be agreeing to. Equally important is the acknowledgement that not all our students are in the financial position to work jobs that pay so little, and this, unfortunately, has a continued effect of silencing underprivileged voices in the theatre. After all, students without the ability to work for no or low pay will have shorter resumes, less professional experience, and therefore less chances of getting hired later on. Fair pay in the arts is a raw and sensitive topic across the board, but in order to make positive change, we as educators can teach our students to demand the respect, and therefore, the wage that doesn’t continue to perpetuate the idea of theatre as a bastion of privilege.

2. Networking opportunities.
For most students, this is one of the top reasons to look for theatre work during the summer, and indeed, connections made in summer stock frequently lead to many more fruitful collaborations. A few things to consider here: does this company hire from across the country or is it more regionally focused? Does the company have a way in which staff can get to know each other as well as artistic and leadership teams (workshops, showcases, other planned get-togethers)? If the company boasts working with nationally recognized designers, do they host educational talks or portfolio reviews? And most importantly, would the work schedule allow for people to have time for social or semi-professional interactions outside of the immediate theatre/shop environment?

3. Job title and duties assigned.
Resume building is another top reason for doing summer stock. It may be very exciting for students if they are offered leadership positions that, for some, would be their first professional credits. However, it is very important for students to understand exactly what the company’s expectations are for all the duties associated with those positions. It is not uncommon for a company to hire someone as a designer, but include the build, maintenance, and backstage tracking as part of the same job (in professional/LORT theatre this would be 3 to 4 different job titles).  Also, students should proceed with caution when applying for any position described as an “internship”. Though the Fair Labor Standards Act lists some very specific requirements for what an internship means (an educational experience that is comparative to an academic course, is to benefit the intern, and is not to displace labor that should be done by an employee*), plenty of summer stock companies still use the term to describe a low-paid worker who will end up doing any and every job that is asked of them (in some states, laws allow seasonal non-profit organizations circumvent certain federal labor requirements, so the legal situation around this issue remains inconsistent and unclear). In order to avoid a less than desirable situation, students should once again be advised to find out exactly what this particular company’s definition of “internship” is.

4. Contract length and working/living conditions.
Some companies hire for the whole summer, and some only for the build. There are potential advantages in either situation (extended work vs. the possibility of having one’s summer be more than just one experience), and they should be considered. Perhaps a part of this thought process should be some research into the working and living arrangements one would have during the course of their employment. Most companies will have some kind of way for their employees to live relatively close to where they work, but students need to make sure they understand whether their housing will be free (the job post will say “free housing provided”) or not (“housing available”). And if the housing is free, it will frequently imply a shared living situation, sometimes dorm-style with 4 people in the same room. Students should be honest with themselves about their personal comfort levels; and we all must acknowledge that any multiple roommate situation is potentially fraught with conflict that could have a negative impact on how the entire summer stock experienced is viewed.

5. Find out about the Company & Job
In the end, the most important piece of advice I can give to any student is this: find out as much as possible about the company and the job. For this, try to find someone who has worked there before, preferably in a similar position within the last 2-3 years, and talk to them about their experience. Social media has made this a far easier task now than ever before, so educating oneself about potential advantages and disadvantages of working summer stock should be fairly easy.

    There are many wonderful summer theatre experiences out there that our design and technical students can greatly benefit from. I hope we can provide them with necessary guidance to find the places that will build them up professionally, personally, and artistically. [ ]

*Source: “When is it OK Not to Pay an Intern?” by Blair Hickman and Christie Thompson, June 14th, 2013.

Anastasia Goodwin is Costume Designer and Costume Shop Manager in the Theatre and Dance Department at St. Mary’s University, Winona, MN