What happened to intermission?

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“How long’s the show?”

“75 minutes without an intermission.”

“Ah, the way god intended theater to be.”

That’s an exchange I overheard recently in the will-call line before a show. It’s a sentiment I’ve uttered more than once myself with a sense of relief. There’s something lovely about a show that doesn’t go on too long. There’s a certain pressure to the storytelling and the language. It’s enough time to excavate an idea but not so long that people get restless. It’s longer than television but shorter than a movie and more and more it’s becoming a norm in the theater: 75 minutes – no intermission.  

For the audience, a play without an intermission is a little like a first date (or maybe more crassly a one-night stand). You show up, do your thing, and leave. You make one decision and then, usually, it’s over. Maybe it was good, maybe it was bad but there’s not a lot of conversation.

A play with an intermission affords the audience a breath, an opportunity, and a choice.  The breath is easy: you get a pause, a moment to pee, a few minutes for conversation and reflection.:\What are people talking about? What resonated? What didn’t? The choice is tough but essential: do I go back in? Am I interested in a second date? Do I want more?

For a playwright, an act break is a daunting decision.  

Where do you put it? What does it say? What does it do? A good act break leaves the audience with a question, an expectation. It can be a simple: “what happens next?” But the best plays leave you with deeper more personal questions., more personal. Somehow the playwright  has to bring everything to a moment that’s pregnant with possibility. It’s a temporary end with the seduction of more to come. That’s really difficult to do.

So more and more, playwrights (and directors) are just skipping it. Cram the story into a single act, cut it down to a manageable 75 minutes (maybe 90 – 100 at the outside) and call it a night.  The audience gets stuck on a bunch of first dates.

I’ve started to miss intermission – not just demands it places on a playwright but for the opportunity it offers an audience. Especially in Los Angeles where there aren’t good theater bars to connect after the show, intermission is an opportunity for community (if only for that fleeting few minutes).  

Bring back intermissions! Because you never know, that second date might lead to something serious and if nothing else, it’s worth the wait.