Stephanie Wessels was sitting in Radio City Music Hall, one seat over from Michael McGrath, when he won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 2012. No, Wessels was not a producer, family member, or fellow nominee. She was an intern.
Wessels earned a spot as a Tony seat filler through her involvement in the American Theatre Wing Theatre Intern Network, a monthly gathering of ambitious young people interning at theatres and theatre organizations across the city.
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"This is a real sleeping giant of a program," says Wing President and CEO Heather Hitchens, who calls it a "mini grad school." "We need to be concerned that there aren't a lot of entry points to the field. The jobs don't turn over as much. It's hard to get that first job, and we really need the next generation to be ready to take our jobs and carry the work forward." The program began in 2003 as a self-organized group, but when then-executive director Howard Sherman learned about the meetings, he organized the group formally. Now, the network gets together each month for industry expert panels, professional development seminars and networking events covering all theatrical disciplines — from general management to marketing to development.
"The network has really grown my field of vision of what this industry has to offer," says Cliff Sellers, an intern for Martian Entertainment. He participated in a recent workshop where attendees heard professionals speak about what they're looking for in resumes and cover letters. "Just seeing the people sitting in this room, it is the melting pot of what the future of the industry really is."
The National Endowment for the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs currently fund the network. Approximately 125 interns participate each year, with an average of 30 to 50 people attending each meeting. There is no application process, only a nominal $10 annual fee to participate. (Pizza is provided at each gathering.) Even after an internship concludes, the individual is welcome to continue attending workshops and events, and enjoying perks like free tickets or the opportunity to attend the Tony Awards.
The program's primary goal is building relationships, and in the next few years, organizers want to establish a few mentorships for stand-out members of the network with high-level industry executives.
"We want to make sure that internships are fulfilling for both theatre organizations and for the student or young professional," says Joanna Sheehan Bell, the Wing's director of programs and a former member of the network. "What happens a lot is people come out of college, they have a theatre internship but the entry-level job isn't immediately there for them. We're trying to help them build a network in the industry to get over that hump and get them into the field and eventually into jobs."
And really, the key to success—and landing that first job — is just like being a seat filler at the Tonys.
"You're going to get that seat next to Tom Hanks, if you go for it," says Lina Renzina, an alumna of the program and the theatrical marketing/development associate at Ars Nova. "You're going to get that job if you're aggressive and want it." For the record, Renzina did get the seat — and the job.
Suzy Evans is a writer and editor based in New York. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and American Theatre.