This past May I packed up my car with the barest essentials for a three-month adventure and made the move to Chicago, Illinois. This would be a solo adventure, and I would be lying if I said I was without trepidation. My destination was reached in three hours and thus began a summer like no other: a summer interning with Victory Gardens
Victory Gardens Theater offers a transformative space for young arts professionals, and I was lucky to have this door opened for me when I attended the National Arts Marketing Conference last November in Austin, Texas. I was able to network with people from the Chicago theater industry and ultimately land this internship and make my vision of speaking truth and affecting change through the art I love a reality.
My internship at Victory Gardens Theater was no stroll through the lilacs. Early in my internship experience, I encountered many moving parts that make Victory Gardens Theater successful. We all sit close together on the third floor of the Victory Gardens office space, and the interns are corralled at one single table that usually is stocked with a generous snack for everyone in the office provided by whomever stress-baked or went on vacation that week. We all became very close through brainstorming meetings for shows, fundraising events to new play projects, and of course during our lunch breaks when we order in.
Some of the different job titles and functions at Victory Gardens include those in the development department (fundraising and donations), audience development (reaching out into the community to build relationships and patronage with a new audience), and of course marketing (getting “butts in seats”). Also, on the artistic side, we have the director of new play development (a literary editor who consults with the playwrights and helps develop new play projects), artistic programs manager (casting), and artistic director (the one who decides the overall artistic impact and vision).
Victory Gardens Theater is a great example of a nonprofit organization that truly follows their mission, which in short is “...nurturing and producing dynamic and inspiring new plays, reflecting the diversity of our city’s and nation’s culture through engaging diverse communities...”
All the different department heads reflect the theater’s mission in their work. The director of new play development, Issac Gomez, says “we have undeniably found ourselves living in a new world— one wracked with more outrage, division, and fear than the one we knew this time last year. As makers and supporters of art, we choose to enter this new world with courage, and through development of new work, we celebrate and begin to heal as we confront our broken world.”
Jasmine Henry George, audience development coordinator, says, “every day the question that I ask is what can I do to make the audience more reflective of the city of Chicago and of the artists represented on the Victory Gardens Theater stage and in our playwright’s ensemble. My job is to work with organizations who are committed to uplifting ALAANA (Asian, Latinex, African American, and Native American) folks and letting their leaders know that those who support these organizations and those who benefit from their work are welcome at Victory Gardens. I help group leaders to plan outings to the theater in which they can promote their own organization and encourage their supporters to engage with pre- show performances, festivals, workshops and post-show discussions. The majority of my job day-to-day is researching, finding, and meeting folks who are leaders in their community in some way and inviting them to have a cup of coffee with me or see a show and asking them what we can do to make a trip to the theater more appealing and what the theater can do to support a particular organization or group of people.”
As members of the Victory Gardens staff, we are constantly having conversations about how we can be inclusive and how we can make theater that’s truly reflective of our community. This includes sensitive conversations about race, sexuality, and identity. Even though we’re an organization known for our diversity, we still come across topics that can make us feel uncomfortable, angry, or guilty. But that’s why we’re successful—we’re willing to take on the truly challenging aspects of our society on a real level and reflect on how the arts and the way in which it is presented may impact the world at large, bringing to light those people and their ideas that are unrepresented.
Victory Gardens’ upcoming season demonstrates this commitment, especially in our world premier productions: “Breach: A manifesto on race in America through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self hate” by well-known Chicago playwright Antoinette Nuwandu and “Doing It,” a commissioned piece through The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation about a woman who was just released from prison and began working in the welding industry.
Not only did I learn a great deal on the inner workings of Victory Gardens Theater as a marketing intern, but I also learned how to get the most out of an internship and how to inject myself into the industry. I was greatly aided in this education by an event that I attended with the other Victory Gardens interns at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, called the Chicago Networking Event. Here I received first-hand professional insights on what people are looking for in an intern. Here are some common themes:
1. OFFER UP YOUR SKILLS. Instead of waiting around for your managers to give you busy work to do, find a problem within the department that you can solve. Apply your previous knowledge and skills as much as possible. For example, if you have experience in ASL, perhaps you could start interpreting shows. If you’re well-versed in social media, offer to help the marketing department. The possibilities are endless if you get creative.
2. ASK FOR FORGIVENESS INSTEAD OF PERMISSION. Be proactive! Don’t constantly ask for work to do. If the recycling bin is overflowing, take it out, or if the next steps on a big project are obvious go ahead and just do it.
3. SHARE YOUR OPINIONS. You offer a fresh, new perspective. You might have the innovative ideas and answers your coworkers are looking for!
4. WEAR YOUR HEADPHONES AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE. Eavesdropping is essential when it comes to an internship. Unfortunately, many of the tasks and duties you are assigned won’t be as fulfilling as you’d hoped, but listening to the conversations that happen around you is a great way to get the most out of your time.
5. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS Another common theme is the importance of networking and maintaining positive relationships within the theater community. People have to know who you are and how pleasant you are to work with. You should always smile and always be thankful for any opportunity given to you. You can find these opportunities by reaching out to people! I have had nothing but positive responses from those I have connected with in the industry. They’re always willing to talk about the art they’re involved in. All you have to do is send an email, meet for coffee, and ask about work you’re passionate about.
Though sacrifice becomes a commonplace element of pursuing the arts, there is still an abundance of rewards that comes your way when you immerse yourself in an inclusive community. I have learned that everything comes in waves; the hard work, the mindless tasks, the invaluable exposure, the kind people who put a smile on your face, as well as the people who you work with that push you to only be better. Achieving my dream of being a professional in the theatre industry is not going to be an easy journey. I have years of unpaid internships, networking, and experience ahead of me before I reach my long-term goals. All of the people I encounter on this trip are hustling to achieve their dreams, just like me. Even though I am aware of the challenges that come with a career in theatre, after this summer with Victory Gardens Theatre, my desire to create relatable and accessible art exceeds any concern of money or comfort that I have.
Samantha Rose Berger she/her/hers