The MCA and the Art of Interning

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By Lucas Baisch

My first steps into the back entrance of 220 E Chicago Avenue in January left me intimidated. A combination of megalophobia and my rampant anxieties almost dissuaded me from what I now know was a necessary endeavor. I walked through the doors of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) thinking sometimes an acceptance of fear is a vital component to the growth of one’s character.

This was the beginning of my stint as the Performance Programs intern at the MCA. I was originally interested in the position thinking it would be a perfect synthesis of my two majors in Playwriting and Art History. My past experiences working in museums, my desire to instill visual aesthetics within theatrical settings, and my interest in cultural institutions reinforced my decision to apply. The MCA specifically intrigued me, because it maintains both a localized and global integrity regarding the artists it aims to showcase.

My internship was similar to what I expect other students at The Theatre School have experienced. I was subject to completing many monotonous, yet needed, arts administrative tasks such as updating box office reports, making phone calls, sending emails, archiving performance histories, standing at a copy machine, composing mailing lists, slicing paper. I went into this expecting to be a lackey, so I wasn’t necessarily put off by the more mindless chores. I never had to get anyone’s coffee. My supervisors were exceedingly grateful and thanked me for my time every day. They were aware that I am first and foremost a student, and respected that I have a life outside of the museum.

Also, my supervisors offered me a multitude of engaging responsibilities. As one of my main tasks, I was in constant communication with artists from around the world (such as Australia’s Back to Back Theatre Company and Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard’s dance company) in order to create and provide the first round of edits for each of the program notes. I sat in on weekly departmental meetings and learned about the internal functions of the museum and the communication that occurs among departments. My most exciting job was a special project in which I was able to work with Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company when she presented UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW at the MCA.

I had followed Young Jean Lee’s work for approximately a year and once I saw her piece was to be produced during the season, I was aching to be a part of the process. Early in my term at the museum, I was informed that I would coordinate an informal panel, free for the public, among Lee, playwright Thomas Bradshaw, and local director James Palmer to amplify UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW and explain the artists’ process. This involved many tasks, including the creation of talking points for the panel, editing theatrical footage for projection, and reserving furniture for the talk. It wasn’t until I sheepishly introduced myself to Lee in passing under artist Martin Creed’s swirling MOTHERS sign that the significance of the opportunity dawned on me.

I also benefited from forming a small community with the other interns from across departments. Together we participated in intern talks, where a representative from each department spoke to us weekly throughout the term. The most memorable to me was with Lauren Watkins, the manager of teacher programs, acting as representative for the Education department. She made clear that public programming not only addresses the formal audiences of youth, families, schools, and teachers, but also the people off the street. This ideology manifested itself in everything from the creation of activity guides to the establishment of teaching artist programs to the development of the museum’s basement library.

These discussions illuminated the kind of community that is established at the MCA, paralleling that of theatre.. Without being a part of these talks, I never would have been aware of how deeply connected Performance and Education, Visitor Services and Curatorial, Development and Accounting were.

As I look at the move into a new building for The Theatre School, I am curious as to how a similar convergence might occur. The playing field will be evened; an inherent erasure brought on by the fact that all of us – students, faculty, and staff alike – will be exploring this new site together. The geographic immediacy of being in one building instead of two will make communication easier, but I am more excited for the potential artistic collisions between departments.

Through working with the museum, I was moved to ask myself: how do I compete with artistic practices happening now? What makes my work progressive and relevant? Playwriting can very easily be deemed an archaic form, but we are at an exciting time as theatre artists, where the future of storytelling is radically shifting, and it is up to our generation to mold that. As a writer, I have to accept that the art I am creating is not anything new. Thematically, stories have been retold since the beginning of time. What’s required is a willingness to allow new forms to influence my work – to embrace what social media, new technology, and short-attention spans have to offer and fuse that into new works. These thoughts persist as I rewrite my own play that will be produced as part of the New Playwright’s Series at The Theatre School in May.

I can’t help but be grateful for the knowledge that I have garnered from my five months working at such a reputable institution. The MCA has forced me to critically rethink my role as a young theatre artist and what that means in today’s society. I have come to realize that each internship is a completely subjective experience; sometimes harrowing, but in retrospect fulfilling. I feel as though I’m now part of a larger network of practicing artists, and I am lucky to have had such a fruitful experience. After having overcome my initial anxieties, I look forward to seeing how I can implement what I have learned into my future work as a playwright.

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