Say No To Unpaid Positions and Stipends: A Newcomer Takes a Stand

Victoria Preis

  • Featured Writer

It has been more than two months since my commencement from New York University Tisch School of the Arts for Drama, along with over 900 other bright, young, artistic hopefuls. Although the reality that I am now an alumnus hasn’t fully sunk in, the brutal fact that my job search began at least three months before graduation has been equivalent to not only rubbing salt, but a dash of cayenne pepper into a fresh and sensitive wound. The truth is, although I received a scholarship of $40,000+ a year, I still graduated from college with a mountain of student debt. This is something I don’t regret, or maybe, something I haven’t had a chance to as my loans don’t go into repayment until November 15th. Like many other students at a similar economic disadvantage, I don’t have parents who live comfortably enough to pay my rent, loans, or other expenses, leaving me in an incredibly urgent and stressful position as the days pass by. This debt is whole heartedly, completely, and unfortunately all mine.

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In spite of my determination and multiple (90+) job applications, I am still not yet earning enough money to cover all my expenses. As each day passes, rejections gather at a much more alarming rate than invitations for interviews, making me feel as if I’m trapped in a pressure cooker with November 15th rapidly approaching. I continuously send my cover letter and resume into the void of infinite cyberspace hoping that my email catches onto some e-debris heading towards someones inbox. If I do receive an invitation, I usually later discover that some information, such as benefits or pay, has been fabricated in order to attract more qualified candidates, therefore wasting my time and my ‘plethora’ of cash. Each day becomes increasingly more panicked than the previous as my interest accrues and accrues and my bank account dwindles and dwindles. Still, this is the business I chose. A business where the competition is largely intimidating, the pay low (if not non-existent), the work under appreciated, and rejection a daily occurrence.

A typical day since graduation goes like this: Wake up at 8:30AM. Check the time and my emails, just Incase some crazy soul decided to contact me for an interview at 3:30AM. Check NYFA and Playbill. Make and eat breakfast. Take a shower and get dressed. Make the bed and organize the space. Refresh NYFA and Playbill again. Select positions I am interested in and complete applications. Edit my resume and cover letter accordingly. Submit my application. Refresh NYFA and Playbill again. Check out Idealist, Indeed, and the NYU Career Center if the previously mentioned websites have not been updated or do not have positions I qualify for. Check my tasks off in Asana. Research grants, fellowships, and other opportunities that spark my interest. Make and eat dinner. Go to Rehearsal, work on my current plays, read, and/or plan potential projects. Watch an episode of Jersey Shore with my boyfriend. Brush my teeth and go to bed. Repeat the next day.

This monotonous cycle can often feel paralyzing, as if I’m a host in Westworld constantly stuck in her loop until it’s time to reset. Which, honestly, would be significantly more exhilarating than revising my resume for what seems to be the 87th time. When will I finally wake up with a newfound consciousness concerning my existence or my career choice? Over the last 5 months, it has become increasingly obvious that many internships, fellowships, and jobs in the nonprofit sector of the arts are somehow perpetually out of my reach regardless of my education, experience, and recommendations from past colleagues. In viewing hundreds to thousands of job postings for multiple arts organizations throughout New York City, there has been an unsurprising commonality: the accepted and expected abuse of new artists and arts administrators in the industry.

When perusing multiple websites for open positions like internships, it has not become uncommon to see the words ‘unpaid’ or ‘small stipend provided,’ which usually amounts to the cost of a monthly metrocard. Often these unpaid jobs present themselves as extraordinary opportunities for experience, exposure, and networking in such a small industry instead of payment. If you’re extraordinarily lucky to work with some reputable organizations, the opportunity may pay at or just below minimum wage. In many cases, students are the ones paying to participate in these “internships” for university credit as you cannot even secure an internship position without being enrolled in an accredited university. Salaried jobs are a whole other uphill battle. Somehow $30,000 or less for an entry level job with minimal to no benefits has been equated to finding gold between boulders in a river after driving yourself in debt to develop irreplaceable skills, gain experience, and earn your BFA. In this industry, we have been told to accept the bare minimum for our endless dedication and contributions. Being that New York City is the second most expensive city in the United States, with the median rent for a one bedroom apartment being $3,340, how is it ethical, let alone, legal to pay your employees nothing for their hard work?

According to Fact #71 for Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the role of an unpaid intern at a non-profit organization should be for the benefit of the intern, the intern should not displace regular employees, and the organization shall receive no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern. Yet, looking at these temporary positions available year long, it becomes obvious that arts organizations and non-profits not only deeply benefit from the work of their underpaid employees, unpaid interns, and volunteers, but rely on their contributions. These opportunities have become nearly as competitive as jobs and one must wonder, how would these organizations function if these roles were to disappear? Would the organization descend into complete pandemonium and chaos or would it function normally as if nothing had occurred?

Recently, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed on my way home from an interview, I came across a post written by a dear friend and colleague of mine, Niko Crawford. Sharing very similar frustrations with this fractured system, Niko stated that “there lies a perpetual problem in the hiring process and compensation of young theater artists and hopeful admin alike. In the world we live in, a stipend is simply not enough. A metrocard is simply not enough. College credit is simply not enough. The hours put into the grunt work that so many young theater artists are doing for theater companies is worth far more than the compensation currently being provided. The expectation to dedicate 20+, 30+, even 40 hours a week and be offered a daily or weekly stipend to ‘offset the cost of housing and living expenses; is simply absurd. Institutions “providing opportunities” like such are only doing harm to those that can’t afford to work for you. And I reiterate “can’t afford.” So many young artists of color, queer artists, international artists, or simply artists from lower income families can’t afford to work for such poor pay. Then in turn aren’t being granted as many equal opportunities in the industry because they ‘don’t have the experience’ that your fellowship and internship programs are providing for artists that have the means (or parents) to support themselves without fairly paid employment. This has perpetuated a pretty homogenous applicant pool, a pretty homogenous network of working artists, then a pretty homogenous group of people in charge of the industry. Your companies are “Equal Opportunity Employers” and are “committed to equity, diversity and inclusion;” you encourage “applicants from populations underrepresented in the theater field,” but your commitment and encouragement only goes as far as stating so on your websites.” The last part of Niko’s statement resonated deeply with me and what I have been feeling for a long time. These positions can only by filled by those from very specific backgrounds in well off economic positions leaving the rest of us to fight over the scraps

When investigating the most notable theaters of New York City, it is not revolutionary to learn that most of them are run by older white men. Non-profit Arts organizations are hierarchal structures bundling themselves in miles of yellow tape, making vital opportunities for newcomers of all backgrounds virtually unattainable. The larger theatre industry constantly describes itself to be an incubator for empathy, a catalyst for change, and mirror to reality which radically challenges the structures of the society we exist in. Instead, it upholds and benefits from them. It is a whited sepulcher, always renovating its gilded gates but never opening them. How can we lecture the world on our politics if we aren’t willing to make sacrifices and live by them ourselves?

As of late, a recurring thought has been meandering through the synapses of my mind, telling me that instead of waiting for this industry to change and welcome me, I must carve a space for myself. I think I will finally do that.

Victoria Preis is a multi-disciplinary artist based in New York City. She also writes for Samuel French’s Breaking Character Magazine and is a recent graduate of NYU Tisch.