TIME OUT: The pros and cons of traditional intermissions at theaters

Does this traditional break in the action onstage still serve a purpose?
Does this traditional break in the action onstage still serve a purpose?

The next time you go to the theater and it’s time for intermission, here’s a question to ponder on your way to the concessions: Does this traditional break in the action onstage still serve a purpose?

Some shorter productions, such as Million Dollar Quartet and American Idiot, presented at Stranahan Theater recently, are about 90 minutes long and don’t have an intermission. But for many shows, a break of 15 to 20 minutes or more is the norm.

The issue was raised in a recent article in the New York Times which called for a rethinking of traditional intermissions for opera and symphony concerts. “In theory, intermissions are there so audience members can socialize and people-watch, discuss the preceding performance, and glance at the program notes for what is still to come, grab a drink and a snack, and make a dash to the bathroom. In practice, the 20-to-30-minute window is barely sufficient to make it to the front of a line,” wrote the Times’ Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim.

But what about the theater-going experience? Does it still embrace the time-honored tradition of intermission?

Amy Spaulding-Heuring, president of the Toledo Repertoire Theatre board of trustees, says intermissions have value. For the audience, an intermission builds anticipation for what’s to come in the acts to follow, and gives people a chance to get up and move around, or head for the restrooms. And a break gives the actors time to rest or change costumes, and the crew time to change sets.

The traditional intermission runs about 15 minutes, she said, but for the Rep’s recent popular performances of Young Frankenstein, which Spaulding-Heuring directed, intermissions were 25 minutes, to accommodate long lines at the restrooms. And, she said, “the actors liked it, especially Igor and Frederick — they could decompress for a second, and the monster could touch up his makeup.”

“We did The Drowsy Chaperone at the Rep, and it was done in an hour and 45 minutes with curtain calls,” without an intermission, she added, “and audiences didn’t seem to mind.”

“Classic, older shows such as South Pacific or Pirates of Penzance were written with intermissions because the plot of the show is constructed to reach its climax at the end of Act One, so you want to have the intermission so the audience is anticipating what will happen in Act Two,” Spaulding-Heuring said.

Holly Monsos, associate dean of the University of Toledo College of Communication and the Arts, said some people do appreciate shorter shows. “We’ve found that when we do shows of more than 60 minutes, to 90 minutes, people seem to like it a lot because then they can go out and do something else. And we don’t need to do an intermission.”

But there is a competing trend, she added. For some venues, concession sales make up part of their budget, and “at some places where that is important, intermission is getting even longer.” In some theaters patrons can order what they want in advance so it is ready for them at intermission.

Costume changes, set changes, and providing breaks for musicians so union rules are followed also make intermissions necessary.

Mark Edelman, president of the Theater League, which presents the Broadway In Toledo Series at the Stranahan Theater, says he enjoys intermissions. “I’ve always been a fan of being in the lobby between acts of a performance. I always enjoy the bonhomme, the collegial nature of being in a room, sometimes tightly packed in a room, often with a drink in one’s hand, having shared a common experience for an hour, an hour and a half, and commenting on the first act, or on the news of the day, but through the filter of the play or musical they’ve just seen. That’s always been a happy part of the theater experience for me.

“The musical Pippin was around when I was a kid,” he said, “and now it’s on Broadway again. Originally Pippin had no intermission and you were sitting in the theater for two hours, [which] practically speaking is a long time to sit. Now for the revival on Broadway [which won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical], there’s an intermission.”

“We’re social animals, that’s why we like to go to the theater,” Edelman continued. “People who go to the theater for two and a half hours are putting aside their computers, I hope, and their TVs and all the bombardment of stimuli and they’re joining together in a group, and I think that answers a deep-seated human need to be together, to be in a community.”

The hit musical Once, coming to the Stranahan May 5-10, will take intermissions to a new level. The show is set in an Irish pub, and during intermission the audience will be able to go onstage and enjoy a working bar serving beer, wine, and soft drinks. Edelman says he advises patrons to arrive early, because the onstage bar will be open before the show too, with the actors onstage, singing and playing.

The opportunity to sell merchandise is a big part of intermissions now, he added. “There’s a lot of money made, especially on shows like Wicked and Lion King. I don’t think you’ll ever see a Disney show without intermission, because they sell a lot of merchandise, and merchandise has become a big revenue stream for some of the big musicals. And without intermission you really cut back on opportunities to sell T-shirts and cast albums and all the things that patrons are interested in taking home because they want a memento of the experience.”

Theaters usually get a commission on the merchandise and can make money on the concessions too.

Elizabeth Cottle, manager of support services at the Valentine Theatre and a Toledo Rep board member who has performed in 27 community theater productions since 2006, said that as a performer she appreciates intermissions. “It gives me a chance to regroup,” she said, “to restart fresh.“

Cottle, who has served on play-reading committees, added that productions are selected based on the content of the show. The length of a play or musical is part of the selection process, but eliminating intermissions is not the main goal.

Intermissions may appeal to older theater-goers because they have been an integral part of the theater experience for so long, Cottle added. They could appeal to the younger generation who have time to check their phones, and can go on social media and check in at the location, or perhaps send messages to friends in the cast.

And theaters sometimes entertain audiences during intermission. Cottle recalls a recent Village Players production of The Queen of Bingo that included a bingo game audiences could participate in during intermission.

“It was really quite fun,” she said.

Contact Sue Brickey at: sbrickey@theblade.com.