August 5, 2009 Interview
Sandra Nordgren: Merit Theater and Film Group Internship Program
In this nytheatre.com cyberinterview: Sandra Nordgren is the founder of the Merit Theater and Film Group, a new
nonprofit. She is the founder of the New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest and the Internship Program. Sandra is also Producing Artistic Director and Literary Manager of 13th St. Rep.
I understand that since 2003 you have conducted an Internship program in conjunction with 13th St. Rep that has proved so successful that it is now in the process of being formed into its own nonprofit entity, Merit Theater and Film Group, Inc. (MTF). Could you give our readers a brief overview of the program?
Actually, Merit Theater and Film Group, which I founded, was born through the New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest and the Internship Program and is comprised of a much fuller mission statement than just the Playwriting Contest and Internship Program. MTF and its projects are separate entities from 13th Street Rep. Every year since 2003, I have been refining the Internship Program, while at the same time mentoring over 300 interns over the course of six years. This year’s Internship Program consists of 39 interns, of which ten have completed their internships and returned home.
A brief and abbreviated overview of the Internship Program:
The heart of the Internship Program is the Vision and Voices Short Play Festival which is running at 13th St Rep through August 16. Literary Interns wrote and developed the plays for the festival from March through May, and I critiqued them through email. The plays went into workshop development with the literary interns after which each play received one or two formal readings which all interns and staff attended. Each play received extensive feedback from everyone in attendance and was rewritten. The interns wrote, produced, acted, directed, designed and promoted the Festival; they did it all and were very successful in doing so! Interns directed and acted in two plays for children, the musical Rumple Who? and Wiseacre Farm. Interns directed and acted in readings. Interns evaluate scripts, learning to pay close attention to plot structure, character and story development, the realistic progression of dialogue, whether the action moves the story forward, and how the arc of the script develops.
Some of the Workshops included: Script Writing and Development; Understanding Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet; Othello; Hamlet (Francesco Campari of Accademia del Teatro alla Scala and Centro Teatro Attivo, Italy and Anatol Yusef of the Royal Shakespeare Company, London); Producing: The Budget (Pat Addiss; Producer of Little Women, Shout!, Bridge and Tunnel, Spring Awakening, 39 Steps, Passing Strange, The Fantasticks!); Producing the Short Play Festival; Improv: How to Support Your Fellow Actors on Stage (Chris Fougere); A Mirror Called Transference (Sandra Nordgren); Your Creative Self: Finding Your Inner Giant (Stanley Harrison).
You have been an active member of the theatre community for many years. Could you give us a bit of background about yourself especially that
which pertains to actively running a nonprofit of this nature?
I've had several opportunities to volunteer at non-profit companies, learning a great deal about how non-profits work. In the early 1980's I co-founded the Classical Theatre Ensemble (CTE), a non-profit theatre company which produced classics at NYC historical landmarks. I learned a great deal about the administrative side of running a non-profit theater at CTE. There is no doubt that 13th St Rep is a great training ground for anyone who wants to learn about theatre from the bottom up. I was part of the Rep in the early 1980's and came back in 1996. I started as Technical Director, then General Manager, learning a great deal about managing the day-to-day operations of an off-off Broadway theatre, and now Producing Artistic Director and Literary Manager. I've produced well over 70 plays, 150 readings, and ten script development workshops, all by new American playwrights.
Many people do not know that my business background is in accounting and that I was Corporate Comptroller for major film editing and production companies or that I was in charge of large film production offices. I gained a great deal of knowledge about filming while on set as Production Auditor for CBS-TV's Pee-wee's Playhouse as well as TV specials and pilots shown on CBS-TV, ABC-TV, NBC-TV, HBO, and Showtime.
I've always believed in learning as much as I could, even if that task wasn't in my job description. Therefore, I possess a broad knowledge of both the business and creative side of film and theater.
Why did you feel an intense intern program was necessary and how do you recruit new members each year?
The main focus of this Internship Program is to empower youth on both a professional and personal level. We take pride in the fact that we offer many opportunities to activate and enhance leadership skills that will transfer to all areas of life. We understand the value of working within a professional environment vs. working within the structure of a university setting. MTF and 13th St Rep provide a nurturing, caring, and structured professional environment in which young people can flourish, test the waters, and if they fall, brush themselves off and either start again or move on to something new. Theatre internships should be golden opportunities to learn and to explore all aspects of theatre. There is no better way to test the "glorified dream"of working in the arts, than to immerse oneself in the day-to-day, hands-on reality of bringing that "dream" to fruition. We provide plenty of opportunity to do that.
I must thank Google for helping recruit the new interns each year. In 2003, I built a small website for the Internship Program and published it on the web. Amazingly, within 2 or 3 days, Google published it on the first page of their website! Inquiries started flooding in; over 100 interns applied. Other than registering the program on a few internship sites, we haven't had to seek interns out; they find us. Additionally, NYU and the New School Career Development Offices have received wonderful evaluations of the Program from their students, as have other universities; these universities, in turn, recommend the program to their students.
This is a large project to oversee and you have many other duties that take your time and energy. How do you oversee and plan this project and
how does it interconnect with your other endeavors such as being Producing Artistic Director of 13th St. Rep and running the New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest?
I have the good fortune to be Producing Artistic Director and Literary Manager of 13th St. Rep which affords me opportunities to develop projects that benefit both MTF and TSRC. Literary Interns evaluate scripts that are part of the first round evaluations for the New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest, an MTF project that seeks socially conscious scripts from around the world. The Rep has produced four of the plays that interns evaluated. And in the past, one of those plays, Ruby's Story by Ron Osborne, was the Rep's main-stage production, directed by 2004 intern Troy Miller. Readings which help the interns develop their directing and acting skills, also allows MTF and the Rep to choose the plays that they produce.
In the early years of the Internship Program, I did not have a formal structure. The structure was built over several years, as opportunities arose. This year we finally have a core structure that will not change. However, one of the most exciting parts of the internship is the workshops. We constantly meet people who are successful theater artists, business managers, theater producers and authors. Many of these wonderful people have taken an interest in our youth, to help them along their life's path to a more solid and informed future. Whereas, in the early days, there used to be a shortage of workshops, now the direct opposite is true. This year, we were presented with the opportunity to have far more workshops than we could schedule, allowing us to choose which workshops were the best for this group of interns.
Do you follow up on previous interns and, if so, how has this program helped their careers?
I still correspond with several of the past interns and several stop by the theatre to see me. They are all still active in their artistic career paths. Cameron Stuckey, who did a technical internship with us in 2007, recently wrote: "I am currently very busy working on the production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater on the Audio Crew. I will also be part of the Audio Crew for the August production of The Bacchae."
One intern in particular stands out because she entered the internship struggling to know whether being an actress was the correct career path for her: Her name is Joy Shatz from the 2004 Internship Program. She is still acting, is very focused on her acting career, and doing well. When she went back to college after the internship ended, she wrote a letter of recommendation, hoping that it might help in getting grants to fund the program; the following are excerpts from her letter:
"Participating in the New Works Reading Series helped me even more. Because the readings are done weekly, I was constantly having opportunities to improve my audition skills, and explore new characters, and myself, through different roles. My favorite reading was Cry Wolf. I played a character very different from myself, and was given the chance to stretch artistically. Being in this reading gave me the chance to prove something to myself—that I am an actress.
I received a great deal of mentorship from Ms. Nordgren, the staff of 13th Street Rep, and many of the other 32 interns involved in her Internship Program. This mentorship was invaluable to me and constructive criticism and praise were passed along in a caring, nurturing, professional environment.
Participating in Sandra Nordgren's Internship Program genuinely changed my life… I now know that the goal of becoming a professional actress is something that I am able to achieve."
What are your hopes for this program in the future and how will organizing it as a separate nonprofit make this happen?
I have volunteered all of my free time towards this Internship Program, from its first steps in development back in 2003 to where it is today. One of the biggest obstacles regarding the internship is a diversion away from the program to make money to cover living expenses, for all involved. Some very wonderful artists have donated their time and resources to the program such as acting coach Tom Todoroff, producer Pat Addiss, playwright Terence Patrick Hughes, lyricist June Rachelson-Ospa, acting coach Stanley Harrison, director Francesco Campari, Shakesperean actor Anatol Yusef, playwright Joel Shatsky, director Stephan Morrow, the founder of TRU—Bob Ost, and many more.
My hope is to bring on board a core group of theatre professionals, such as those mentioned above, to become part of a consistent mentoring team. Merit Theater and Film Group will be applying for funding to create salaries and stipends for administrative personnel, mentoring artists, and the interns, many of whom spend valuable time away from the theatre where they could be learning, because of the necessity to work. With funding, this program could be so much stronger, allowing us all to create projects and workshops that will empower youth, develop and build leadership skills, and give them the tools they need to grow on a professional and personal level.
What have this year's interns said about the Internship Program?
In response to this question, I asked a few interns to write what the internship has meant to them.
Shayna Schmidt, Acting and Literary Intern from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY writes:
"When searching for summer acting internships, it was almost impossible to find one that actually involved any acting. I was elated when I came across the internship offered at 13th Street Rep: it would allow me to not only perform but to directly interact with aspiring directors, playwrights, stage managers, etc. I am having a wonderful experience at the Rep and I am completely immersed in all aspects of the theatre. It is extremely easy for us interns to get involved in whatever we'd like, and we are consistently encouraged to try new things. Ultimately, it is an excellent learning environment: if an actor is itching to try playwriting, or a stage manager acting. The Rep is definitely the place to do it."
Sabrina Lloyd, Directing Intern. Indiana State Grad Student 2010 writes:
"This internship has helped me be less controlling and more open to other's ideas and efforts. What makes this internship unique from others is the level of autonomy and creative opportunities. It's very hands on. You're given a lot of responsibility and expected to follow through, but at the same time, you're given a lot of creative license to explore. There are many group-oriented projects and workshops but again, each intern is allowed to express themselves as individual artists."
In closing: Every year there is a core group of interns who become immersed in all the internship has to offer. This year's interns have a core of about ten who have rolled up their sleeves and dared to stretch their abilities beyond their comfort zones. In the process, they learned a great deal and we are so pleased to see how much they have learned and grown, both professionally and personally. They are wonderful, charismatic young people, full of hope, inspiration, and the desire to contribute something meaningful to the world.