Theatergoers at Festival Theatre Credit: Suzanne Tennant
Theatre-goers wait for the rain to stop before the Oak Park Festival Theatre's 2009 production of <i>Cyrano de Bergerac</i>.
Theatre-goers wait for the rain to stop before the Oak Park Festival Theatre’s 2009 production of Cyrano de Bergerac.Credit: Suzanne Tennant

A life in the theater, on- or offstage, is so notoriously difficult that it’s become romanticized. Young, aspiring actors and crew members expect long hours, late nights, and hard physical labor, all for little or no pay. It’s the price of joining a profession that many in the industry say is still not well regulated, despite recent efforts.

This is all to say that Shalyn Grow, Ryan Luzzo, and Carson Crow didn’t expect their summer acting internships at Oak Park Festival Theatre, a 42-year-old company that puts on two outdoor shows every summer, to be comfortable, easy, or lucrative. They were told from the outset by Jack Hickey, the theater’s artistic director, that they and the company’s nine other unpaid summer interns would be expected to work long hours six days a week building and painting sets; assisting with lights, sound, and costumes; and serving on the running crew for this year’s productions, Pygmalion and The Taming of the Shrew. In return, they’d have the opportunity to understudy or play small roles, assistant direct and stage manage, perform in a special intern showcase, and sit in on workshops for acting and professional skill building. They would also get to meet and work with experienced Chicago actors and directors.

But after five and a half weeks, the three interns quit, saying that the compensation wasn’t worth the cost. The problem wasn’t the work itself, they say, it was a lack of organization at OPFT and respect for the interns’ time and safety: there was no set work schedule, so interns worked as many as 15 hours a day with no days off during rehearsal periods; they operated power tools with little or no training and no safety equipment; and on at least one occasion, one of them suffered from dehydration and heat exhaustion and was not given medical attention. And, they felt, they had no recourse to complain. So on June 17, the night before Pygmalion was scheduled to open, Grow and Luzzo both resigned. Crow handed in his resignation the next morning.

“I feel like they took advantage of our naiveté,” says Grow.

Jack Hickey, the theater’s artistic director, says he and his colleagues “were genuinely surprised” by the complaints and resignations and were unaware of any problems until Grow announced her resignation. “We have a clear way to let anyone who is unhappy express their unhappiness,” he says. “We had heard no complaints up the path of complaint.” But the administration took immediate measures to improve the situation after Grow, Luzzo, and Crow spoke out about their concerns, say interns who have remained in the program.

The subject of what distinguishes internship from free labor has come under scrutiny in recent years, beginning in 2011, when unpaid interns on the film Black Swan filed a lawsuit that argued that their work on the set, largely serving coffee, wasn’t educational and that they should have been paid. (After five years in various courts, the studio, Fox, recently agreed to settle.) Other lawsuits followed from interns in other industries, accompanied by critical essays about millennial entitlement and how unpaid internships serve as a barrier to less well-off young people who want to work in certain industries. Several companies, including Conde Nast, suspended their internship programs altogether, replacing them with paid fellowships.

But many theaters remain nonprofits and can’t afford to pay interns, although they rely on their labor. The Chicago theater community has been particularly aware of unfair labor practices following the recent demise of Profiles Theatre in the wake of a Reader investigation.

Before the internship period started at OPFT, Hickey promised, both in interviews and via e-mail, that interns would always be supervised by staff and crew members, and that an internship coordinator would be on hand to “facilitate communication” between interns and management.

“We will never expect you to do anything you are not comfortable with or makes you feel unsafe,” he wrote. “We will do everything we can to help you learn new skills should you want to learn.”

OPFT is one of more than a dozen theaters testing out the Chicago Code of Conduct, a work in progress created by Not in Our House, an activist group that works to prevent abuse in the theater community (and whose work was also highlighted in the Reader‘s previous investigation). The code is intended to provide guidelines for safety and general welfare and outline a complaint path within a theater if those guidelines are violated. On their first day of work, the interns received an information packet that contained portions of the code. “They showed us the parts about diversity, harassment, and the complaint path,” says Grow. But, says Luzzo, “they violated the things they didn’t share—health and safety” by making the interns work long hours without basic safety equipment. OPFT management says it provided interns with a link to the full code, which is available online.

The packet didn’t contain any kind of contract describing the theater’s expectations and their own responsibilities. A former OPFT intern coordinator says he had written a contract in 2014, but the company had stopped using it. (Contracts for theater interns aren’t universal, but interns who’ve worked in other theaters say they’ve signed them.)

Neither did the packet contain a set work schedule. The theater’s management said it would provide one later; in the meantime, someone from the theater would contact the interns every night before midnight to let them know if and when they were expected at work the following day. Sometimes, though, the messages would arrive as late as 7 AM for a 10 AM start time. Most of the interns were involved in the theater’s production of Pygmalion, so they had to stay for four or five hours of rehearsal after the regular eight-hour workday. Other paid crew members weren’t told how long the interns had been working every day and reprimanded them when they asked to leave rehearsal early after they’d finished their jobs. Some days the interns had no meal breaks. Grow began keeping a detailed tally of how much time they spent at the theater and how they spent it; between interning and rehearsing, the interns were sometimes working 12 to 15 hour days.

In the early weeks, much of this time was devoted to setting up and painting the OPFT offices and moving furniture, props, and set pieces from storage units to the theater. Interns with their own cars were asked to use them to help with the moving, but say they weren’t notified in advance that they’d need to use their personal vehicles and weren’t reimbursed for gas money until they asked for it. Most of this work, they say, was unsupervised.

Stagecraft classes where students learn how to build sets, often with power tools, are a standard part of the college theater curriculum. But the training at OPFT, interns say, was disorganized and incomplete, and no one provided them with safety gear.

“There was one builder—the technical director,” Luzzo says. The technical director was also a hired worker and not a member of the company. “He was given 12 interns to teach and work with to build the set in three weeks. So mostly it was him telling us what to do. They couldn’t afford to get the set built without 12 unpaid workers.”

Hickey says the theater does own safety goggles, but since the company was in the process of moving, nobody seemed to know where they were. “We should have bought more goggles,” he admits. “I was not made aware.”

On one occasion, the interns say, a member of the group suffered from dehydration and heat exhaustion, and no one provided them with medical care. Hickey says this is not the case: staff members told the intern to lie down and drink water, and then sent him home. The managing director offered to drive him, but he insisted on taking the el and texting her when he got home, Hickey says.

Things got worse, the interns say, during tech week, the final week before Pygmalion opened. This is always an intense period, with longer and more arduous rehearsals and then full preview performances, and Hickey had warned the interns it would be a particularly difficult time, but promised that after that, things would get better.

But Grow, Luzzo, and Crow felt their patience wearing thin. They consulted the code of conduct complaint path. The code recommended that the first step should be a conversation between the two parties, followed by a report to the stage manager or an onsite Equity deputy, the liaison between the performers and Actors’ Equity, the theatrical union. Earlier in the summer, one of the interns had complained to the Equity deputy about an actor who had made a sexist remark. The actor was reprimanded and made a formal apology. But in the case of the work hours and safety issues, the interns felt that many of their problems lay with the program itself, and the code offered no particular recourse for that.

“People have been there a long time,” Grow says. “They have big, strong roots, and we didn’t want to tick them off. We didn’t want to burn bridges.”

Had the interns been receiving course credit they might have been able to complain to their schools; but all three were participating in the internships independently. Since OPFT is part of Actors’ Equity, in theory, everyone, even non-Equity cast and crew members, should be able to make a formal complaint to the union about anything that happens there. But when Grow tried to file a complaint, she discovered that this only applies to incidents that occur during rehearsals or performances, not internship workdays.

Grow and Luzzo both sent e-mails to Not in Our House, and Grow discussed the situation with NIOH cofounder Lori Myers over the phone.

“It was alarming they had such an exhaustive list of grievances,” says Myers. She realized that, for all the conversations that had led to the code, she and other members of NIOH had never talked about internships. The code doesn’t specifically address that issue.

Myers asked Grow if she had explored all her options, and Grow said she had. Grow interpreted this conversation to mean that she had NIOH’s blessing to leave the internship, though Myers says this is not the case. “The code is about self-regulation and working out problems internally,” she says. “I would never recommend someone just quit.” At the time of their conversation, though, she thought Grow had already made her decision. Grow, Luzzo, and Crow had also discussed their problems with professors and mentors who, they say, did not have the power to hold the theater accountable and advised them to get out.

The night before Pygmalion was set to open, Grow told the show’s director, and then Hickey and Jhenai Mootz, the company’s managing director, that she was leaving.

Hickey was shocked. “We’d never heard any previous complaints,” he says. “From what I could understand, the main issues were that we were asking too much and working the interns too hard. We were unclear about work calls. Tech week is a crazy period, but I thought we made that expectation clear.”

The company called an intern meeting after that night’s performance. Luzzo opened the discussion by saying he was quitting. Interns, he had discovered when he looked up state employment laws, are not legally required to be paid, but their work should be educational and benefit them as well as the company.

The work, he said, wasn’t educational. Instead, they were being treated like unpaid employees.

“They can’t function without us,” says Luzzo.

At the meeting, Grow reported the tallies of how many hours the interns had worked every week. No one else from the company, she says, had been keeping track.

“That was the thing that did it for me,” says Crow. “I felt that if the company manager wasn’t aware of the hours we were working (which were a lot), then obviously they didn’t respect our time.” He resigned the next morning.

Hickey says he’s still having difficulty understanding what happened, and he’s disappointed that the interns didn’t come to him before they quit. “We believed we had made stronger efforts this year to improve communication,” he says. “We did our best to understand their concerns and thanked them for taking the time to voice how they feel. We did our best to address their issues, but we didn’t address them quickly enough to be effective this season.” He says that in the future, the company would make efforts to make sure that interns felt safe and capable of doing jobs that were assigned to them.

“On our side,” he says, “there are no hard feelings. They decided to do what was right for them.”

The interns’ departure caused a stir both within OPFT and the cast and crew of Pygmalion. Other members of the group had to take over their various jobs. One performer in the cast, who asked to remain anonymous, believes the complaints were groundless. College stagecraft classes should have prepared the interns to build the sets, she writes in an e-mail, and the lack of a set work schedule is common in professional theater. “As an actor, we get our rehearsal call by 10pm or midnight the night before, and we work 6 day weeks. That is simply how the theatre business works.”

Other interns say that it had never occurred to them that something was wrong, but the things Luzzo and Grow said at the meeting made them reconsider. “It was a little disconcerting,” says intern Mario Ragazzone. “They were scared to come forward because they didn’t want to cause trouble, and that state of mind festered. If communication were better, that could have been avoided.”

Ultimately, Ragazzone and other members of the program decided to stay. Since then, they say, things have improved noticeably, especially after two interns, Ciara Hickey (no relation to Jack) and Gillian Randall, met with the theater’s board of directors to discuss the grievances.

There is a set work schedule now, with fewer work hours, although things are expected to pick up again during tech week for Taming of the Shrew. There have been workshops on auditions and resumés, and various Pygmalion cast members have coached the interns through their scenes for the showcase, which they performed on the last night of the run of Pygmalion.

“It’s been an incredible turnaround,” says Ciara Hickey. “It was incredible how fast they rallied the troops and fixed things. I think this could have happened in a different way. If they had gone to Jhenai [Mootz, the company’s managing director], they could have gotten an immediate reception. I don’t think Jhenai knew, and she would have done anything in her power to fix things.”

“We all had issues,” concurs Randall. “It was on us to speak up. I think people were worried to talk to Jhenai because she had so many responsibilities. And people are intimidated to talk to tight-knit groups. It’s easier to talk to people who are not as affiliated.”

The interns still have no contract that clearly lays out their duties and responsibilities. Randall says it’s probably too late for this season, but says the administrators have promised there will be one for the next group of interns.

The three ex-interns have remained in touch with their friends in the program. They’re glad to hear that things have improved, but they’re disappointed that it took them quitting to make a change. “They have a reactive way of handling issues,” says Grow. “Why not be proactive?”