August 5, 2013

THEODORA KALIKOW: Take it from me: Lessons to be learned even in worst internship



Last time I wrote about internships, so today I’m going to tell you about my own internship experience from 50-plus years ago. Moral up front: it can be the internship from hell, and you can still learn.

Midway through my junior year in college in 1961, a nice tweedy man from Yale showed up to recruit apprentices for his summer theater venture in New Hampshire. He was going to be the director/producer of classic plays such as “Arms and the Man” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

He had recruited professional actors and a graduate student from the Yale Drama School to be the stage designer, and he needed interns to build the sets and hang the lights and scour the countryside for props and in general be the gofers and understudies, all for $25 per week plus room and board (remember this was 50-plus years ago).

I liked being a stagehand and carpenter for my extracurricular college activity, so would this be a career path for me? At least I could wear jeans all summer. So I checked it out, namely I looked on a map to make sure there really was a Georges Mills, N.H., and there was, so I signed up.

Comes the day, and my parents drive me up the side of a small mountain to the stereotypical large New England farmhouse with barn theater and a few outbuildings that probably were once chicken coops; in one of which we interns would sleep. Parents leave me, under protest. What was with them? Soon, I knew.

We meet the acting company, we meet the owners of the property who are also going to house and feed us, we meet the nice tweedy director, we meet the stage designer, and we meet the other interns. It is going to take some doing to make these folks into a team.

Oh, and by the way, the $25 per week that we were supposed to get paid — we find out we actually have to pay them for the room and board. It’s 1961, and I am barely 20 years old. No transportation, no phones then, no nothing. Stuck! I was not going home, no way. I had $100 in my checking account. I wrote a letter to my parents. They sent me another $100. Imagine what they were thinking.

Long story short, it was hot, we worked building the scenery, cleaning the toilets, taking tickets, running the lights. We spent lots of time complaining that those misguided audience members were more interested in going to the musical theater down the road than in coming up the hill to our shows. Which in retrospect, except for “Earnest,” I am not surprised about one bit.

After about the third week of no audiences, our tweedy director was fired by the folks who actually owned the theater, and they brought in a new guy who allegedly knew what the audience actually wanted and would give it to them for the very next week.

We all could stay if we wanted because somebody would still have to do the work, and the food was cheap enough.

I think we mostly all stayed; the actors didn’t have a lot of options and we interns didn’t either.

The new director turned out to be a whole different kind of weird, and the audiences didn’t improve that much after all.

We had no wheels except for a staff member’s 1950-era pickup truck that we usually used for scouring the countryside for props — we really did that. We could stack everyone into it but there was nowhere to go. There was maybe one pizza joint within 50 miles.

So, after the show was over, we would turn off the marquee, sit outside on the road in the country dark and watch the ECHO satellite go over. It was a novelty in 1961, and after the flightier members of our group got over thinking it was a UFO (I think they called up the Strategic Air Command or possibly just the local radio station), we liked to watch for it.

All in all, however, it was a successful internship. I learned I did not want to do that for my work. I didn’t like staying up late every night. I had no talent for designing. The people were fascinating but not folks with whom I wanted to spend all day and night. Good learnings!

And if you want to know any lines from “The Importance of Being Earnest,” I probably still know them.



Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at kalikow@usm.maine.edu

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