Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Intermissions or no intermissions? (the debate of our time)

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times by theatre critic Charles McNulty proposed that it was time to eliminate intermissions in theatre productions.  He feels it’s an outdated practice and in the post-COVID era theatergoers are going to be reluctant to huddle in crowded lobbies during intermission.  I see his points.

He addresses the issue of bladders.  Lots of people would rather not sit for two hours without going to the bathroom (especially since theatergoers tend to be on the AARP side).   Yes, people could leave their seats in the middle, but he acknowledged that theatres (especially Broadway theatres) tend to be packed.  Movie theatres offer more room.  Legit theatres aren’t going to reconfigure or take out seats so that’s a continuing problem.  Many of them are the size of shoe boxes anyway.

I personally don’t understand why theatres don’t welcome intermissions.  They make more money.  Concessions and T-Shirt sales would suffer without that mid-play break. You gotta move that merchandise. There's nothing sadder than a show closing with 7,000 unsold hoodies. I’ve had plays with no intermissions and several theatres have asked me if they could insert one.  

There’s the other psychological issue that tickets tend to be expensive (especially on Broadway).  I’ve gone to plays that lasted 75 minutes and I’m out of the theatre by 9:00.  That’s not a whole evening’s entertainment.  That’s a quick meal at the sushi bar.  

I have plays that have intermissions; I have plays that don’t.  One of my plays, which you can watch here, with Joely Fisher & Tim Daly, takes place in real time.  So there can’t be an intermission. 

But given my druthers, I prefer an intermission, and here’s why:

I write comedies.

Comedies play better with an intermission.  Audiences get tired and laughs start to die that otherwise wouldn’t if the audience has a break.  

With some dramas it’s the opposite.  They don’t want the audience to have a reprieve.  To fully get the experience they’re establishing they want the audience immersed until the end.   And I get that too.  

But for comedies, give me an intermission.  And it doesn’t hurt that wine is served during the break.  And I get a percentage of the hoodie sales. 


Anonymous said...

One of the best scenes in The Producers is the intermission.
The Majority

jenmoon said...

Intermission is a different thing when it's "in person" theater vs. Zoom theater. In person, well, bladders gotta go and ladies gotta wait in line. 'Nuff said, you need it.

On the other hand, Zoom theater, you can take a 5 minute pee break, but nobody needs to wait 15 minutes in line for a snack, drink, or pee, so you don't need a long one.

N. Zakharenko said...

Why are we giving breath to this preposterous article, peppered with paranoid claims by a phony cultural snob?

He believes that a truncated "West Side Story" is better than the unabridged version with a break.

He believes it is better to miss part of the performance to visit the restroom, rather than to see its entirety due to a break.

These are not the words of a real critic, who would wish audiences to see good productions in their entirety, and in comfort.

Don't ask him about Mash or Cheers - he wouldn't watch past the beginning of the first commercial break.

In addition, the human body is not designed to sit in a chair for 150 minutes non stop - with or without toilet breaks: ask any health expert.

Movie theaters threw out the interval because they could squeeze in more sessions.

As someone who saw all 194 minutes of Titanic (1997) several times in theaters, my feeling of discomfort in the closing stages in the movie distracted me from fully enjoying them until the video release.

Craig Gustafson said...

It depends on the structure of the play.

"Man of La Mancha" is constructed to run straight through. So if you stick in an intermission, there is no impetus for the audience to come back - it didn't build to a first act climax. All foreplay.

The inferior adaptation of "Twelve Angry Men" that played for years regionally had its intermission square-pegged/round-holded into the script in a stupid place. When I was cast in a local production, the director was working from the movie script (Shhh...), and I suggested a spot for the intermission. Years later, when original writer Reginald Rose did his own adaptation for Broadway, his intermission was where I had put it. Great minds...

The intermission joke in "The Drowsy Chaperone" is that the narrator will not allow the audience to have an intermission... but *he* takes one; and the show moves on without him for a few minutes. When I directed it, the theater demanded that I put in an intermission, which killed both the joke and the momentum, which had to be re-energized. After the first weekend, I made an executive decision and killed the intermission.

Three act comedies - theater companies get into this weird mindset, that having two ten minute intermissions instead of one fifteen minute intermission renders the evening interminable. You generally have the same amount of pages as a two act comedy, it's just constructed differently. A table reading of "The Odd Couple" will run two hours; it's not somehow "longer" because it has three acts. But if you switch the intermissions of "The Odd Couple" to one intermission, the "first act" is an hour and a half, unless they stick the intermission after the decision to call the Pigeon sisters rather than after the actual date, which (again) is not enough of a climax to keep the momentum going in the lobby; and the set change from horrifically sloppy to squeaky clean now has to be done in under a minute instead of giving the crew ten minutes to clean up.

For me, it's all about following the intentions of the playwright.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Isn't the concern of people huddled together in a crowded lobby during a pandemic a bit moot when they're already huddled together in a crowded theater which may or may not be observing social distancing guidelines?

Donna Hoke said...

On Broadway, I much prefer no intermission. Even if I have to use a restroom, I often choose not to because getting to it is a nightmare and the lines are horrendous; it ruins the experience for me. But in a space where you actually can relax during intermission, get another drink, etc., and not be using the whole thing trying to strategize to be the first to the ladies room, then I'm fine either way; there are pros and cons.

I will say, this, however: I like a tight NMNI (ninety-minute-no-intermission play) over an overwritten one with an intermission any day of the week.

garysironen said...

Many movie theaters have also switched to lounge chair seating and more but smaller theater spaces. Getting up to use the restroom during the show with a row of 15-20 seats is a lot different than a row with 50-60 seats.

Anonymous said...

Not at all relevant to today's post, but Bill Whittaker was the..least...of the JEOPARDY guest hosts. Not bad--none of the bridge hosts have been bad--but the soft-spoken style that works so well on 60 MINUTES didn't work in this show's format. It was like your high school English teacher was filling in. I'd even rate him below blogdom's least favorite, Dr. Oz. Back to CBS News, Bill, where I do like your work.


Daniel said...

I'm not a huge theatre-goer, but I find that intermissions just take me out of the show. When I return, I don't have the same level of engagement with the story or the characters. Theatre is already an artificial experience, but stopping it in the middle just heightens the sense of artificiality. The best example is Into the Woods. I love Sondheim, but I always come back from the intermission impatient for the second act to end. But when I saw the film (which had no intermission and no clear break between Act 1 and Act 2), it played much better for me.

flurb said...

I like an intermission, or two, thanks. I prefer to leave if I don't like what I'm seeing - and if playwrights and producers don't think I'm trapped, they work a little harder. (Looking at you, Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins" - a great cast recording that's an awful play.) I'm also with the people who feel cheated by a show - particularly at Broadway prices - that's under ninety minutes. Of course that's more down to producers, who want small casts; it takes genius writers to make four people (or fewer!) interesting for two hours, and as it turns out, there aren't that many geniuses who write for the theater these days. (Present company excluded.)

Ere I Saw Elba said...

I prefer loose venues in all cases. I don't like sitting in packed theater chairs. Call me crazy, but I like to get up and move around, and have beverages and restrooms available at all times.

This certainly doesn't mean I don't think audiences shouldn't be respectful and generally pay attention. But when people are compelled to sit in cramped seats for hours, they will tune out anyway. The nightclub is my venue of choice.

DBenson said...

For musicals and comedies of any scale, I like an intermission. It does contribute to the sense of ritual and occasion, especially if the building has any glamour to it. For those thrifty shows with a cast of two or less, I can go without.

Sometimes intermissions can be put to artistic use. For a local production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", I played Erronius, the old man who jogs through the action every so often after being sent to run around the Seven Hills of Rome seven times. Most of the audience spent intermission in front of the building, so I went out and jogged past them in character.

Less silly was an Ashland production of "Othello". The title character remained alone onstage through intermission, as if trapped there, clearly struggling to digest what was happening to his life. In an after-show talk another actor said it was partly for the actor, who needed to keep his momentum rather than take a break. It was a little haunting to come back from a soda and fresh air to see him still there, uneasily waiting to see where fate was taking him.

Scotmc said...

Would eliminating intermissions mean that there would be no more Shakespeare productions, no revivals of O’Neill’s final two plays or ‘A Thousand Clowns? I pulled my copy of Gardner’s play off the shelf and noticed that it is in three acts. The film version made some strategic cuts and runs two hours. It is difficult to imagine a theatre where there would be no place for revivals of ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ and were ‘A Thousand Clowns’ written today no theatre company would accept it.

YEKIMI said...

I have nerve damage in my lower back, the nerves that control body elimination functions. Therefore, when I have to go, I HAVE to go......now! So intermission or not, I'll probably be getting up two or three times a show. Yes, I COULD wear Depends or bring along extra underwear but I realize getting up that often is going to annoy people/actors/etc. So I don't really go to the theater.....I'd have to drive to Cleveland for any plays anyways......but I have this recurring nightmare that an actor will lose it after my 3rd get-up-and-go moment and come off stage to kick my ass. Now MOVIE theaters are another story. Last movie I saw that had a planned intermission was "Tess" and that was 40+ years ago. I tend to check running times and if it's 90 minutes or less, I'll go and see it. But these Marvel Extravaganzas, forget it!

Mike Bloodworth said...

Here's my question, where would you put the intermission in a ten minute play? At the five minute mark? Or would it come at six minutes thirty three seconds? That way a viewer is more invested in the characters and more likely to want to see the end.
What about Dinner Theatre? Obviously, intermission should come after the soup or salad and before desert. But otherwise it's difficult to determine when. You wouldn't want your meal to get cold. And of course don't fill up on breadsticks.

That's why plays on television are a good idea. You can pause your DVR or other recording device, excrete waste, grab some "Flamin' Hot Doritos" and not miss anything.

As for being huddled in a crowded theater lobby, that's part of the experience. And since a typical theater goer is also likely to be in the fully vaccinated category it should be safe for everyone. Fauci says so.


Unknown said...

I need an intermission to read these comments. Can't do it in one sitting. But I'm not a robot

Anonymous said...


Saw the 1981 National Theatre Co/Peter Hall production of the Oresteia. Five and half hours.
Not only intermissions, but an actual dinner break.

This was, of course, before I knew what a prostate was, or that I had one.


jasonthomas said...


Liggie said...

John Patrick Shanley insisted that his play "Doubt" be performed without an intermission, because he didn't want the audience members to discuss whether they thought a major character was culpable of a crime at the break. That said, I saw an opera version of "Doubt" he wrote the libretto for, and they had an intermission due to the logistics of opera (takes longer to sing lines than speak them, the singers need some time to rest their voices).

Pat Reeder said...

As both a writer and a dedicated movie and live theatergoer (I was even a judge in the Dallas theater awards for a while and saw literally EVERY production for several seasons), I'm completely with N. Zakharenko above. I feel dumber having read that article. So plays should be truncated for the low-attention-span crowd because of TikTok and, for some reason, Donald Trump? Why even listen to this idiot, who obviously cares nothing about theater or movies if he sees nothing wrong with missing part of either while you annoy your neighbors by getting up and leaving and then coming back mid-action? Unless they're going to install personal toilets in every seat, this would be a nightmare for many theatergoers and ruin many plays and musicals. I'm not geriatric, but I still need to go to the bathroom at some point, particularly when it's been two hours since dinner. And intermissions give you a break to think about and discuss what you've seen and get your mind in gear for the next act.

Also, could we please call a halt to all this idiotic retooling of everything in society so we can keep hiding forever from a pandemic that's already ending? There are multiple vaccines, take one and shut the f*** up! Before the vaccines, I followed all the safety rules and still got COVID. It's a virus; that's what they do, and have done since the dawn of time. It was pretty bad, but I think I'd rather get it again (which I won't!) than have to listen to all this hectoring paranoia for the rest of my life. I got over COVID, and these people can't even get over their fear of COVID.

If germophobes like McNulty been in charge of society during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, the Roaring '20s never would've happened. If you're that terrified of the risks of living, then hide in your house with your Uber Eats and your Zoom calls until you die of obesity and quit trying to suck all the joy out of life for the rest of us.

Buttermilk Sky said...

The horrendous lines Donna Hoke alluded to are an issue for women, and could be alleviated by more and larger ladies' rooms. And anyone who complains about ninety minutes without a break has probably never been to the opera. (I know, you hate it.)

During the reign of Queen Victoria there were no toilet facilities for visitors to Buckingham Palace. Guests were advised to refrain from drinking liquids for 24 hours before a soiree. One of Edward VII's first acts was to order bathrooms built. It's good to be the king.

HooperSquare said...

UK Theatres love intervals (since they make all the money on the bar), and so often will fine shows which don't have one - meaning that various shows (Rocky Horry Show being a good example) have intervals inserted arguably making the show worse..

Anonymous said...

It must have been a combination of the increase in multi-cinemas, automated projection systems and higher film rental fees, as well as the strange need to gauge a movie's hit status solely by its opening weekend rather than letting them build or sustain success (somehow I think that will change with COVID). Theater companies got bigger, movie companies got bigger and they had to have done research to see what people thought of intermissions as well.

They must have also figured that if someone wanted something from the snack bar or otherwise, they could leave their seat and the income from intermission wasn't enough to justify it (one line for the restroom, another for popcorn isn't enough).

Re-introducing it to people today might be jarring because it would, perish forbid, delay gratification.

Personally, theater intermission seemed more social and restroom-based than movie intermission. I don't like to miss a second of a movie and I don't like stepping over people, nor do I enjoy when people seem to bring their camping equipment to the theater and reluctantly have to move all of it so I can leave and re-enter.

It was such a pleasure to watch Wonder Woman Meets Godzilla in Nomadland, or whatever I saw on HBO Max and be able to pause it, watch it later and even watch the credits without people standing to leave. No phones in my face but mine. And if you don't like the movie, no gas, no drive, no feeling like you've wasted so much time and effort. I just have not seen a lot of recent movies (nor are there any in the pipeline) that are worth it.

I do still enjoy and miss going to the movies, though, to see good ones. If COVID taught is anything, it should have shown us what we could do without and what should be done better or we can still do without it.

Anonymous said...

@ Buttermilk Sky

"We are not continent."

RobW said...

Where did all this nonsense come from that movie theatres decided themselves to curtail intermissions ? I have spent 40 years in theatrical exhibition and any film we played that came with an intermission played that way. The restorations of Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus and Funny Girl ran exactly the way they were originally released with the overtures, entre'acts and exit music. Spielberg did not design Schindler's List to run with an intermission, and Cameron didn't build an intermission into Titanic. Can you imagine the furor if a theatre owner was discovered to be running these films with a self-created intermission ? They likely would have had their engagements terminated; at the very least they would be required to discontinue the intermission immediately.

Ian Thal said...

McNulty demonstrates that he can compose click-bait and offers nothing but a hot take.

There is no dramaturgical argument presented, no attention to the pragmatics of running a live performance, and no empathy for his fellow audience members.

The examples he gives are shows that represent the mainstream of commercial theater -- which demonstrates a parochialism I don't expect from such a prominent critic.

The kicker is that the one playwright whom he quotes to make a supporting argument appears to be talking about something quite different -- he is quoting her out of context.