Creating the 21st Century Artist

Hector Flores Komatsu hadn’t planned on spending last summer in Paris.

The theatre directing major was wrapping up his sophomore year at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance in April when he received a call telling him that he had been selected for a paid internship with Théâtre de la Ville, a celebrated French company known for its multidisciplinary theatre, dance, and music productions.

Komatsu would work as a rehearsal assistant and media collector for the company’s upcoming touring production of Six Characters in Search of an Author. He would be involved in every area of production and tasked with subtitling the original Italian text of the play (which is performed in French) into English.

The only catch: he would have to start work in two weeks’ time.

“I went crazy,” said Komatsu. “I said, ‘of course,’ brushed up on my French, and flew to Paris two weeks later where I had the most amazing and gratifying summer of my entire life. It changed my perspective as a human being and as an artist. It gave me perspective on other models of working in different cultures, not only in theatre, but also in dance and music. Two weeks into rehearsal, and everything else went away; it becomes your whole universe.”

This life-changing experience was made possible by the 21st Century Artist Internship program, launched last year and supported by U-M’s Third Century Initiative, which has committed funding for two additional years.

Building on a longstanding partnership between University Musical Society (UMS) and SMTD to offer students master classes and other educational opportunities, the program places SMTD undergraduates in summer internships with organizations performing on the UMS schedule the following season.

The unique new program takes full advantage of SMTD’s exceptional access to many of the world’s most celebrated professional touring artists in music, theatre, and dance, thanks to the prestigious and creative programming of UMS. Even more unusual is the fact that it provides a generous stipend of $4,000 per student, a rarity in the arts world.

“If you’re a student in the arts and you want to have some sort of experience where you’re embedded in an organization, you almost always have to work for free,” said Jim Leija (BFA ’02, musical theatre), director of education and community engagement at UMS and the administrator of the internship program.

Most students simply can’t afford to partake in unpaid summer internships, something Leija experienced firsthand while studying at SMTD. That memory motivated him when planning the new program. “We have to be as serious about engaging arts students with experiential learning as we are with any other field, ” he said.

The 21st Century Artist Internship program creates a new model for providing students with work experience in the performing arts. In addition to spending a minimum of five weeks at the headquarters of a host organization, where they handle a wide spectrum of administrative and artistic duties, the students also act as the ensemble’s “campus ambassador,” creating contextual and educational content to engage UMS audiences when the company arrives in Ann Arbor to perform. The program strives to balance artistic learning with entrepreneurial and administrative learning.

“If you’re going to be an artist–and this program is geared for students who see themselves as future artists–you have to get really comfortable with the idea of talking about your process and being able to engage people, being open to interactive moments, whether in real time or social media,” said Leija. “The student ambassadorship is about giving the interns the opportunity to practice communicating, in all these different ways, about the artistic experience in which they are invested.”

The program dovetails perfectly with SMTD’s focus on developing entrepreneurship in students. “This internship is the ideal complement to our Performing Arts Management minor,” said Melody Racine, SMTD’s associate dean for academic affairs, who works with Leija to match students with host organizations. “Performers today need to excel at their art, but also must be conversant in promoting themselves and their ensembles, in every iteration.”

Leija points out that the ensembles presented by UMS are especially adept at engagement. “Audiences are yearning for deeper connections to the work,” he said.

“The artists we present understand this and are excellent mentors for our young artists here at U-M. And what really sets this program apart is the contact that students have with the artistic personnel.”

As for the students, adaptability was a big factor in choosing the right candidates. “We had so many incredible, accomplished students applying for this opportunity, but we were really seeking students who could adapt to a variety of unique situations,” said Leija. “Every artist, every company needs something very different, and the students we selected were able to dive right into uncharted waters with confidence.”

Joining Komatsu as the very adaptable inaugural team of 21st Century Artist Interns were Elizabeth “Libby” Seidner, a senior majoring in instrumental music education, who interned with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS); Sophia Deery, a junior with a double major in musical theatre and anthropology who interned with Abraham.In.Motion, a dance company in New York City; and Hillary Kooistra, a senior dance major with a performing arts management minor, who also spent the summer in NYC, where she interned with the Trisha Brown Dance Company.

All four interns created content for the audience engagement portal of the UMS website, including essays, photo journals, and interviews with their organization’s artists and/or managers. In addition, they organized master classes and other educational events and gave presentations at SMTD classes and at UMS Night School (free classes related to dance concerts presented by UMS, hosted by Clare Croft, SMTD assistant professor of dance). Combined with their duties during the summer, the work provided invaluable experience.

“This internship was very immersive,” said Seidner, who has held previous internships with the Hartford and New Haven symphony orchestras. “The San Francisco Symphony wanted me to have my hand in every department. That was very cool, to get to see what it was like-in public relations, marketing, development, artistic administration, education-at a very large nonprofit.”

Back in Ann Arbor, in addition to audience development work, Seidner arranged a master class by the SFS’ understudy conductor, Joshua Gersen, with the Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra (YYO), whose members are taught by Seidner. The students were learning a suite from West Side Story. Coincidentally, the SFS had recently released a complete concert recording of the musical’s entire score, and Seidner had been involved in its marketing. She was thrilled to take advantage of that serendipity by providing the YYO this singular opportunity.

“I got to do my dream job for five weeks, so now I can really see myself pursuing an arts administrative job,” said Seidner. “There’s really nothing else like this program; I remember grad students hearing about it and saying they would gladly start their undergrad studies again just so they could participate in it.”

While Seidner worked with one of country’s largest and most established arts organizations, Sophia Deery had an experience on the other end of the spectrum: She got to see what it was like for a young organization-Abraham.In.Motion (AIM)-to build itself up.

Company founder, Kyle Abraham, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, is transitioning his troupe from the “pick-up” model to a full resident company. Deery got to sit in on meetings about budgets, the hiring of new dancers and staff members, ideas for social media campaigns, and the scheduling of performances far into the future, providing rare insight into the development of a fully functioning company.

Deery also worked as a rehearsal assistant, learned how to book studio space in a heavily overbooked city, and gained experience preparing the dancers’ weekly schedules. She also shared responsibility for creating the company’s tour book, which provides information on flights, housing, restaurants, massage, physical therapy, transportation, and more for each city on the international tour.

In Ann Arbor, the company was in residence with UMS and the members engaged in an enormous amount of outreach. Because Abraham’s works are grounded in contemporary social issues, the outreach extended to a diverse spectrum of student groups, both at U-M and in Detroit Public Schools. Deery participated in much of the planning, including an event for U-M’s Multi Ethnic Student Committee and a master class for SMTD students.

Deery expects that every part of the experience will figure in her future success, in whatever form it takes. “I want to attain the highest level of performance that I can, but a part of being successful, to me, has to include understanding every aspect of the business,” she said.

With the Trisha Brown Dance Company (TBDC)-an iconic, 45-year-old leader in postmodern dance- Hillary Kooistra also helped prepare for an international tour while also working on a variety of administrative duties in development, archives, marketing, and social media, and helped plan events connected to NYC’s River to River Festival.

After the dancers left on tour, Kooistra’s focus shifted from company management to education when she was put in charge of the summer intensive. She facilitated communications between students, teachers, and venue staff and oversaw all aspects of site management. She also took classes every day and traveled with the company for domestic tour performances at Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, New York) and in Milwaukee.

Kooistra’s audience development work in Ann Arbor was prolific, with six essays on, including three about her participation in UMS Night School sessions, and an interview with TBDC company member Leah Ives, a Department of Dance alumna (BFA ’07). Kooistra also spoke to dance classes about her experience, and moderated a post-performance discussion with TBDC members and students.

“I went into the summer having so many questions about what I would do after graduation, how I should be preparing myself, how I should be preparing for senior year and after,” said Kooistra. “But the experiences and the connections I made with working dancers, fellow interns, people I got to meet in New York-they really eased all my worries and helped me to realize that there are so many ways I can be involved in the dance world.”

All of the interns expressed enormous gratitude for the opportunities afforded by the internships, which, they all stressed, they could only take part in because they were paid positions.

“For someone like me, internships have never been something I could let myself hope for, because they are usually unpaid,” said Deery. “Any free time that I have has always been devoted to working, so I cannot tell you what it felt like to just be able to live and pursue my dreams without being hindered by a financial burden. For the first time, I felt like I had a fair shot, and for that I cannot adequately express the gratitude I feel.”


By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.