Interview with Megan Shuchman about the Steppenwolf Theatre

by | September 20, 2010

The internship and apprenticeship positions offered by Steppenwolf Theatre Company would tempt anyone interested in the arts. The program has aged wonderfully, developing a more formalized and comprehensive seminar structure and heavily expanding recruitment efforts, among other things. In the second and final installment of my interview with Steppenwolf's Megan Shuchman, Megan tells me more about networking in the industry, the recruiting process, and how the program has responded to the recession.

Building your network and learning the lay of the theater-land

Steppenwolf Theatre Company internship programVault: I love how much interaction there is between the interns and the apprentices and the Steppenwolf community. Not every internship program does that; sometimes, the interns are very insular. Speaking of which and sort of building off of that networking side of things, you mentioned giving interns the opportunity to meet people in the theatre community beyond Steppenwolf, and also that you have workshops for resume and cover letter advice and even help with networking and how to go about that. Can you tell me more about that program? Because, again, not a lot of internships have those out services, recognizing that an internship or an apprenticeship is a stepping stone; it is a launching pad, not a full time job.

Megan Shuchman: Right, and I think that's something that is especially true when you're working in an industry where you really need to be aware of that and understand the importance of networking. Granted, networking is important in any industry, but particularly one that is involved with artists. And really, in the arts, it's not about who you know in a negative way, but who you know in a positive way. Who do you know who can involve you in a project? Who do you know who can provide a stepping stone for you that you may not have thought of on your own? Who do you know who you can go volunteer and work for and then maybe that turns into something in a couple of years? In other words, it's the positive aspects of networking, not the what-makes-people-cringe aspects. So the way our resume and cover letter workshops work--and this is something where I totally have to credit our general manager--is that we have one whole day (it's exhausting!) when every intern or apprentice is asked to turn in his or her resume and cover letter, a version with which they feel comfortable, and then our General Manager, and our Graphic Designer go through every single one laboriously and make notes on what they would change, what they would keep, etc. They do that for both the resume and cover letter, and then we as a group look at every single one, so that you can learn not only from the comments made on your own, but the comments made on other people's as well.

At this point, we also have a pretty comprehensive manual that we use, which we pass out to every participant. It includes how to start from scratch writing a letter, DO's and DON’T's lists, just things that we in the industry have found to be generally helpful. Then, we bring in our human resources coordinator at the end of the day, and she talks through best sites to find jobs, best places to look, things you may not have thought of, and more DO's and DON’T's from the HR perspective. And again, it's all industry specific, so it's what we have found to work for us. Another person who usually comes in and contributes, who's really fantastic, is our director of development. She has worked in the industry for a long time and is just great. She usually does an interview technique workshop with everybody, and sometimes she's joined by our production manager, which is a really nice complement between the administrative and production side of things. So they may do a mock interview, which, you know, can be kind of silly, but then we talk about what we saw, and what it is that Sandy (Karuschak) and Al (Franklin) are bringing up to the group in terms of things that, in their many, many years working in the business, they've encountered.

And then the other layer of that is that this year, which was hugely successful, we brought in a group of really fantastic designers. The benefit of being the theatre company that we are is we have access to some of the nation's best designers, and so we asked them to come in and do a workshop for those in our group who are interested in working as professional designers. They presented their own portfolios, and then they just gave a really lovely workshop for two hours on what they look for when they're hiring young designers as assistants and things to think about when putting together your own portfolio.

What's next for Steppenwolf interns?

Vault: That sounds great. So, do most of the interns and apprentices go on to work in the theatre industry?

MS: A lot of them do, and we actually are continuing to work on tracking our alumni network. We have 21 members of the staff at Steppenwolf who were formerly interns or apprentices, so we certainly keep some of them around, which is really great. Also, next to each intern and apprentice job description on the website, we list four or five former interns or apprentices and what they went on to do.

Vault: And you said that 21 current staffers are former interns. Is that sort of over the past 20 years, or do you often take one or two from an intern class or apprentice class?

MS: Not exactly; it's 21 that are current. The person who's probably furthest out who's currently in that group was maybe 10 years or fewer ago an apprentice or an intern. So it's not necessarily somebody who, 25 years ago, was an apprentice or intern and got the job right after and has stayed and then one at 24 years ago and one at 23; it's not as sectioned off as that. It's just a lot especially of our very proactive apprentices and interns do a really great job while here, not only expressing interest in the department in which they were assigned, but doing those things like I mentioned--volunteering, being really involved in the theatre as a whole--and so when a position becomes available, even if it's not directly affiliated with what they just spent nine months doing, they may say, but I also had an interest in this and this is related to what I ultimately want to do, so they apply for the job, and of course we know them and their wonderful work, and that's how a lot of people have ended up on staff.

Looking forward: Recruiting, expansion and flexibility

Vault: You talked a bit about the surveys you've done with alumni and how the seminars came about. How have the programs changed over time? I know that the African-American student fellowship is new, but how has the internship changed? How has the apprenticeship changed, particularly over the past few years?

MS: Well, the structure has definitely changed. The program has become more formalized: the mentorship evaluation process, that independent long-term project I mentioned, the seminar structure. And then I would say the biggest thing we've changed, which we feel very proud of, is that we have really expanded our recruitment efforts to try to reach candidates across a diverse spectrum. We now have spent time posting our description of these programs at places like idealist.org. We're trying to reach people who may not have even known that a job like working in the development fundraising department of a theatre might be something they would be interested in because they aren't die-hard theatre people who have been doing this since they were four years old, and yet have an interest in the arts. So we've really tried to diversify our recruitment efforts to reach a greater base of applicants, and we've seen our applicant pool greatly expand as a result. We've looked for new venues; we've gone to new colleges and universities as part of our job fair recruitment; and we've done a lot more e-marketing to more diverse groups to see what new students and recent graduates we might scare up. And, like I said, it's just paid off immensely.

Vault: The recession has had an interesting effect on internship programs. A lot of companies have increased their internship programs. Some of them have cut them altogether. Some of them even increased the number of full-time job offers that they offer to their intern class each year. I'm wondering how the recession has affected your programs.

MS: Well it hasn't affected us in that we haven't cut any of our intern or apprentice positions, nor have we added any. Every department is always assigned one intern or apprentice. That has stayed pretty consistent the past five plus years, I'd say. So that's sort of an answer to the first question. And I don't know how it's affected full-time jobs, in terms of positions that we would or wouldn't offer to apprentices or interns. There aren't a whole lot of new jobs, as in most companies, available in ours. It's not the sort of organization where we always have two new associates every year, and it's just a question of who moves up into those positions. Typical to our industry, we don't have a ton of brand-new positions that are created almost ever. We've actually added benefits for the apprentice class, which we have really prided ourselves on. I would say that the biggest change we've seen in the recession is just the sheer number of applicants that we've gotten. It's always been a pretty competitive program, but this year we had over 1,500 applicants. We ended up hiring 43 last year.

"Life-blood of the theatre"

Vault: Do you have anything else you'd like to talk about? Is there anything I didn't ask that you wish I had?

MS: Something that I think is really special about our program that maybe is worth mentioning is just that, as much as we feel like we give a pretty great experience to the people who participate in the program, it's also a really important program to what we call the life-blood of the theatre. Every time we bring in a new class or participants, there is just this really wonderful energy around the theatre. It's nice to have fresh faces and fresh ideas and fresh insights into things, and I think the staff really takes those opinions and observations made by apprentices and interns seriously. And since I coordinate the program, I will often get staff members who send me emails or stop by just to say, "So exciting that the new interns are starting in a week," or "I didn't get a copy of everybody's new bio," because we always post those for staff to read a couple weeks before they come in, and "I want to be sure I get a copy." Everyone wears a badge around for security purposes, so they'll say "Can you make a spreadsheet so we can get to know everyone's names?" The program just has a special quality. It's not, "Go get coffee and make sure my copies are on my desk by the time I get here"; it's really "How can we make a trade? How can we teach you something while you're here?" And certainly they're contributing something to the theatre, but I think it's felt evenly on both ends.

Read the first installment of this interview, in Megan gives me a basic overview of the programs, their differences and similarities, and Steppenwolf's stellar mentoring.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company is one of Vault's 2010 Top 10 Internships. And be sure to read the full Steppenwolf internship profile on Vault.

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