Editor’s Fanfare Vol. III, No. 4


To Intermiss or Not to Intermiss

Intermissions have been the bane of playwrights and theatrical producers  ever since they first began being used  by the popular theatre.  The plays of the Twenties and Thirties were specifically structured around intermissions.  The first act curtain came down on a surprise revelation or a promise of more complications to come.  The second act curtain fell as the play reached its crisis.

Both the second and third acts resumed the play’s action at a level of tension much reduced from what  had been attained when the curtain on the previous act had fallen, and it then went about its business of building to an even higher level of tension.

Eventually the three act structure was abandoned and playwrights had to contend with only one intermission or interruption of their accelerating dramas.  With the two act structure intermission came at a point in the play so compelling it  would send the audience out to the lobby where the level of excitement was so palpable it created an unmistakable buzz of excited anticipation as the audience eagerly awaited the resumption of the play and the resolution that the final act would bring.

But over the course of years, various theatrical productions have struggled with the problems involved in finding the most opportune time to take an intermission, fearful that the tension, once broken, could never be recaptured without serious damage to the entire enterprise.  In one famous example, which the book Everything Was Possible by Ted Chapin chronicles, the director and producer of the musical Follies found themselves agonizing during the entire out-of-town tryout period over where to take a break in what turned out to be a very long show.  Several different moments were tried until it was finally decided, once the show got to New York, to play the show straight through without a break,

Maintaining dramatic tension is one thing, the need to relieve one’s kidneys is quite another and perhaps equally as important to keeping an audience happy and receptive to one’s show.  And then there is also the possibility of selling over-priced drinks and refreshments as well as souvenirs to consider.

A production of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, which just opened in New York, runs for two bloody hours without intermission.  Once you get an audience in a choke hold, there is nothing to be gained and everything to be lost from easing up on your grip and letting an audience use the toilet.

From recent experience I have observed that circuses, too, have problems with intermissions, for circuses, like theatrical events, build excitement through the course of their performances and must consider if and when to take a break.  The problem, I think, is not so much where to take the break, as it is how to get back to the level of excitement you had already succeeded in building before the intermission.

The two productions of the Canadian National Circus School each ran for ninety minutes.  At that length one runs the risk of tiring, if not exhausting, an audience to a point where their attention and interest begins to flag.  It was a risk both of the shows’ directors’ took.  There were several opportunities many minutes before the end of those ninety minutes when the shows had reached a high point and a break could have logically been taken.   The problem which overrode this consideration for these directors, apparently, was what to do when they brought the audience back from said break.

Cirque du Soleil’s Kurio provides an example of what can happen when an intermission breaks a carefully constructed tension.  There was a decided decline in the level of excitement at the outset of act two despite a rather rousing  ensemble act that sent acrobats flying through the air where they turned all sorts of twists and turns.

Ringling, like most traditional circuses, nowadays has an intermission,  But it was not always so.  The first for the combined shows came in the Forties with Robert Ringling, was abandoned and reinstated in the mid-Fifties.  It came at a very high point in the proceedings, a point so high that management felt obliged to remind audiences that the show was not over and there was still more to come.  Like the well-made plays of an earlier era, Ringling’s second half begins at a much more relaxed level than what it was when they left off.  In the Legends production the second half opens with what are probably the most playful and amusing moments in the show, the collection of animal acts.  The kids’ interest is immediately restored by the animals and the show then begins building to a grand climax with a series of ever more thrilling displays.

I don’t think we are ever going to see an intermission-less production again from either Ringling or Cirque du Soleil, given the importance of concessions, so that structure is something any new creative team must take into consideration from the start.  But other circuses, without such constraints have to decide whether or not there is anything to be gained from an intermission.

When it comes to the matter of intermissions, one must consider the needs of both the audience and the entertainment.  When the needs of both are met—with or without an intermission—it makes for a satisfying and happy experience.