The art of inspiring a generation

News that interns at 20th Century Fox are suing the Hollywood studio for unpaid work carried out on the Oscar-winning film Black Swan puts the whole rationale of internships squarely back in the spotlight. There’s a fine line to be drawn between providing young professionals with valuable work experience and on-the-job training and getting them to do for nothing what an employer should be paying for.

Should the size of the company make a difference? Should a multi-national, multi-media company like 20th Century Fox be under a greater obligation to pay for people to carry out necessary jobs than a small arts company in the wilds of Suffolk?

It’s a difficult conundrum but it appears that two Suffolk theatres have negotiated a way through this moral minefield to come up with two different schemes that manage to keep everyone happy.

The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds has run its own training course since January 2009. TRAIN, or Theatre Royal Internship and Apprentice Network, offers opportunities at three levels: Voluntary Worker – unpaid, short term learning/on-the-job training contract; Apprentice – individual training linked to a funded course place; and TRAINee – one-year on-the-job training with minimum wage payment. Since the scheme started more than 50 people have spent between three months and a year working at the theatre.

The programme also offers educational support, opportunities to sample other jobs within the organisation, seminars and an exit strategy which will help them into work or onto further training schemes. Occasionally, permanent posts come up. The current press and marketing duo, Emma Martin and Christine Irvine, came through the scheme and are now full-time employees.

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It’s good to see regional theatres putting money into a scheme which will not only help the intern but ultimately help the theatre and the arts world in general.

In recent years not only has money become increasingly tight but there is something of a skills shortage as experienced people retire or move out of the business, leaving a large number of vacancies backstage.

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As funding has steadily evaporated over the last 30 years the focus has been on putting shows on stage, rather than investing in technical skills for tomorrow.

No-one can miss the fact that regional arts is fairly impoverished. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence, making a little money go a long way. Across the globe, arts organisations have seized upon the idea that interns can help bridge the gap.

It’s a clich� but, for the vast majority of the people who work in the arts, the show is the thing. That’s where the buzz is. That’s where you get that sense of satisfaction.

Which is why you get people willing to work for nothing.

But there has to be something in it for the intern – apart from the thrill of being part of a hit show. What should an intern be looking for? Also, what should an arts organisation be looking to get out of an internship programme? The answer for both is training and inspiration. The company must be looking at inspiring the next generation of arts professionals. They must be seeking to fire their creative juices and provide real, hands-on experience and provide the contacts for them to go out and enliven the arts industry.

In short, an internship should lead somewhere. It should provide training and quantifiable experience. It should offer opportunities that aren’t available any other way. The intern should emerge from their time as an inspired, employable individual. The problem with the interns at 20th Century Fox, according to their petition, was that they were required to carry out repetitive, menial tasks with little educational value. Happily, like the Bury Theatre Royal, The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is committed to providing training and practical experience, giving their interns tools with which to gain further work. It has teamed up with Suffolk New College to deliver a new BTEC course in Production Arts.

The new course will be available to students from September and will be based at the New Wolsey, with support from Suffolk New College.

Sarah Holmes, chief executive at the New Wolsey, said this programme would go a long way to dealing with the skills shortage.

“This unique collaboration is designed to provide work-based learning and invaluable insight into working at a busy regional venue.”

The course will focus on technical theatre for those interested in stage management, technical stage work, front of house or theatre arts management.

Gaining work experience at the New Wolsey has already proved invaluable to sound technician James Breward – known as “Brew”. The 32-year-old was deputy production manager for communications for the London 2012 ceremonies, ensuring some 9,000 cast and crew could communicate before, after and during the opening and closing ceremonies.

Brew joined the London 2012 team in October, having been headhunted by Chris Ekers, formerly system engineer for Glastonbury Festival’s Pyramid Stage and head of sound at the Edinburgh Festival.

Brew said: “He asked me to come and get involved as an interface between the contractors and the organisers of the global spectacular.”

Brew first applied his skills in the field of communication systems as a graduate at the 400-seat New Wolsey Theatre. From there he went on to work on productions of Miss Saigon, Mary Poppins, We Will Rock You, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds and with artists such as Katherine Jenkins. He explained: “In the musical theatre environment, it’s the sound department who typically look after comms, and I’ve had the opportunity to work for a number of people who furthered my knowledge and understanding of how to do comms well.”

Sarah hopes the new course will help the next generation of technicians develop their skills.

“Students will be able to tap into a wealth of experience across all departments and make informed choices about the direction they want their careers to take. It’s a major commitment but one we are very excited about.”

Amanda Winnick, Head of Creative Arts and Media at Suffolk New College, said: “The structure of the course allows students to specialise in the areas that interest them, such as stage lighting, sound or event management. Theoretical understanding of the performing arts business and its history is integrated into practical work and there is an emphasis on working as part of a group, as well as developing individual skills and disciplines.

“The BTEC in Production Arts course will give students the unusual opportunity to learn in a real theatre environment, whilst providing them with a platform to progress onto a university course, an apprenticeship or a job in the industry.”

• More information: contact Jo King – Programme Leader in Performing Arts and Music.


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