Monday, June 17, 2019

by W. Riley Braem

My road to becoming a young professional was a little nontraditional. After high school I tried college out and quickly found out that it wasn’t for me…at least not yet. In the pursuit of my art I went out and experienced life and by life I mean adulthood. I got a job doing anything and everything from working in fast food to factory work to being a temporary postal worker. I performed in community theatre, completed a directing apprenticeship program, attended conferences and took master classes when I could.

At 26 I decided that it was time for me to get a college degree. After a bumpy start and 4 major changes I accepted that in order to be successful in college I had to study something I loved. I changed my major to theatre performance and theatre design and I haven’t looked back. As an undergrad I jumped at the opportunity to do work and the thought of being paid was a myth. I graduated from Austin Peay State University with a BS in Theatre Performance and Theatre Design in 2010 and moved to Tempe, Arizona to begin the Master of Fine Arts Theatre for Youth Program at Arizona State University.

In my first term of graduate studies I had a mid-semester check in with Roger Bedard and we were discussing how my term was going thus far. I mentioned that I wanted to look for internships to gain more experience and Roger stopped me. While I don’t remember his exact words he said something along the lines of, you don’t work for free anymore. What? You mean I get to get paid now? As silly as it seems, for the first time it occurred to me that I had a degree in theatre. While I still had lots to learn I was a young professional in the field.

With that said, not all payment is monetary. I’ll say it again. Not all payment is monetary. As an emerging artist in the field, being given the opportunity to build my craft and network with established professionals is a form of payment. But each opportunity is different. I had to take a long hard look at what benefits an unpaid opportunity would give me. It is also important to put value in your work. If you don’t place a value, in this case monetary value, on your work then others will not either. If you establish yourself as an artist who always does work for free when you make the transition and provide the same product people will move on to the next free worker.

Mutually Beneficial Work

Instead of seeking out internship opportunities I shifted my focus to mutually beneficial work. What opportunities will provide me with some benefit that I would otherwise not have? Fellowships are a great example of mutually beneficial work. In my second year of grad school I applied and was named a Jim Rye Fellow for the 2012 International Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY) showcase. I was able to work with Kim Peter Kovac (KPK for short), Producing Director, Theatre for Young Audiences, at the Kennedy Center and head of the Rye Fellow program and IPAY board member. KPK took the time to speak to each Rye Fellow and find out our interests. He then paired us up with professionals for career chats. We were also able to network with TYA professionals from around the world and see inspiring theatre.

The benefits did not end for me when the showcase ended. A few months later, KPK emailed me and asked if I would be interested in connecting with Jennifer Adams, Academy Director for First Stage Children’s Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who was developing a recreational drama program for youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (the topic of my MFA Thesis). I connected with Jennifer and in August of 2012 First Stage flew me to Milwaukee to help launch their Next Steps Program for Youth with ASD. As a result of the connections I made at IPAY I was offered a paid contract for work. I was lucky to be named a Jim Rye Fellow for the 2013 IPAY Showcase as well. As a result of the job that I did I was recommended for and contracted for a research project for VSA at the Kennedy Center. The work that you do for positions like this make an impact and could yield future paid work.

There is nothing wrong with working as an unpaid intern/fellow if the relationship is mutually beneficial. It is important to also think about the connections you will make from the work you do and how you can use them in the future. However, current and future benefits are not the only things you need to think about. You need to really look at the organization you are considering working with. You need to know what you are getting yourself into. Are you going to be stuck answering the phone and stuffing envelops or will you have the opportunity to build skills that will aid you in your long-term career goals? Don’t be afraid to ask for a list of job expectations and if there is a way to tailor the internship to meet your learning goals in addition to the goals of the organization. Also, don’t be afraid to ask if there is a way to speak with past interns/fellows.

If you are lucky enough to be offered a paid internship/fellowship you need to find out he specifics of the job before you accept the post. If your internship is a 6-month gig and you are expected to work 40 hours a week but you are only paid $3,000.00…well you can do the math. Again, you need to look at the work that you will be doing for the organization and think about how it serves your short and long-term career goals.

You also have to ask yourself, “Can I afford this internship/fellowship?” This is an especially important question if the internship/fellowship you are considering is unpaid. If your internship/fellowship is part of your program of study for your degree then you may qualify for financial aid from your college or university. If not, look to professional organizations in your field that may provide grants for professional development. You also need to consider the following:

  • Relocation: Are you willing to temporarily relocate if commuting to/from the internship/fellowship is not possible?
  • Housing: Will housing be provided or will you be responsible for your own accommodations?
  • Savings: If you are lucky enough to have savings put back, are you willing to live off of your savings for the duration of your internship?
  • Part-Time Work: If needed, will you be able to work a part-time job or will the time requirements of your internship/fellowship prohibit a second job?

A good rule of thumb to follow when selecting an internship/fellowship is, if taking advantage of this opportunity will put you in debt and/or does not serve your short/long-term career goals, it is probably not the best choice for you. But, as a very wise man said to me in many graduate school discussions, “you are condemned to be free”.


There are a lot of things to consider when thinking about taking both paid and unpaid internships/fellowships. The most important thing to remember is that any work that you do, both paid and unpaid, should be mutually beneficial in some way. It might be building skills or networking with amazing artists from around the world but there must be something in the work that you do that fulfills you.


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