Should we do away with theatre intervals?

7th April 2021

With live theatre productions resuming next month, one thing that may not be returning are intervals. 

Lyn Gardner wrote in her recent opinion piece in The Stage entitled, ‘Don’t give us a break – intervals are an outmoded, unnecessary theatre convention’, that she would happily do away with the intermission because it ‘destroys the world of the play.’ 

The Globe theatre announced at the end of March that productions will commence in May and will not include intervals but instead will have a more relaxed approach allowing for free audience movement as and when required.

Artistic Director Michelle Terry has said about the decision in The Guardian: “They were never written with intervals, so we won’t play them with intervals”.

I think this more relaxed environment sits well with Shakespeare performances, as Michelle quite rightly says his plays were not written with a break in mind, but would this approach work for all productions and all theatres? 

Imagine Mrs Alving in “Ghosts” wondering whether to euthanise her son who is having a fit through advanced syphilis in a relaxed setting! For the older theatres, not only in the West End, where leg room is non-existent, it would be far too distracting to have to get up and down throughout the performance to let other theatregoers go to the loo or the bar. 

Some performances already run without intervals such as ‘Six’ and ‘Come From Away’ - both running at 75-mins and 100-mins respectively. 

Just over the hour which is fine for most people to go without a break, but a show any longer than that without an interval could put some people off from attending. I’m not sure we are conditioned to sit that long! A stretch of the legs is important for many if nothing else.

Some venues however, including Sadler Wells, will be cutting intervals and reducing running times from May. How long this will last or if they will revert back to having an interval when it is safe to do so, is currently unknown.

Many are welcoming this idea, however others - including me - can see the positives and the pitfalls for both the audience and those on the other side of the curtain. 

From an audience perspective, we pay good money to go to the theatre to be immersed in the performance, escape into the story and feel the tension, magic or whatever it may be. We don’t go to have disruptions of people getting up and down, having our view blocked and missing parts of the shows etc. 

The interval for many is where all these things should happen. This is when you head to the bar, go to the loo, discuss the show with your friends and enjoy the sounds of everyone else doing the same in the auditorium. 

How about those who don’t have a robust bladder and couldn’t manage a continuous performance? If they left during a one act show, they would miss part of it. Is that fair?

What about those who are older or have accessibility issues. How would they easily and freely be able to move around the venue? 

Some people have described theatre with no interval like going to the cinema. We are more than happy to sit through a 2 or 3-hour film, some chomping their way through nachos and popcorn. So why can’t we do this with theatre? Without the smelly food!

The difference for me is that the talented individuals live on stage demand our attention from the moment they walk on. There is more immediacy in theatre as the story is unfolding right there in front of you, sometimes accompanied by incredible music from the live orchestra. In theatre there’s plenty of action that needs our concentration, and that is what is exciting. When walking into a theatre or cinema we go in with different expectations from previous experiences, and a completely different mindset.

But it isn’t only about the audience being able to sit for 2 or 3 hours. Can the cast and crew perform for that length of time non-stop too? It’s really important to remember that removing intervals will have a huge impact on those backstage.

How would actors feel during a pivotal scene or awkward moment to have theatregoers moving around the auditorium, distracting them and other audience members. 

Actors may also need an interval to regain their energy, rest their voice, perhaps change a costume, take in what has happened and more. Crew may need to prepare a range of technical elements and scene changes that couldn’t happen in a continuous performance. 

 Without these breaks, after a time, we’ll have burnt out cast and crews. Particularly if they are doing two or more shows a day. Think of those touring or doing pantomimes, which are already hard work and intensive.

Many theatres may not like this approach either as intervals provide the perfect opportunity to make much needed revenue from the bar, refreshments, and merchandise. Will ticket prices go because of this? Of course it may be this will all be on offer throughout the “relaxed” performance. More getting up and disruption perhaps?

For me I feel intervals may well be needed for some productions. Some plays just don’t lend themselves to relaxed performances. Intervals can add to the whole theatre experience. In my own productions I have often used the bar/gallery for a display about the world of the play. I have used the space and time to add to that world. There’s more information about the writer, the play itself and the time in which it is set for the audience to browse and discuss. This adds to the whole experience. The audience feels even more immersed. I’ve even made sure that the drinks and snacks on offer fit in with the world of the play. So for “Abigail’s Party” we had pineapple and cheese on sticks and one could purchase a snowball from the bar!

I’ve read about and spoken to people who say they won’t be going to the theatre anymore as they don’t want all the interruptions. If this is already putting off the audience, how do actors feel about performing in this type of environment?

It is paramount for all venues to get the correct health and safety measures in place to allow them to reopen in May, and start making their staff, cast and audiences feel safe. Perhaps just to reopen they may begin with this relaxed approach and add an interval back in at a later date? It will be interesting to see how both audiences and actors feel about a continuous performance. I don’t think there should be a hard and fast rule. That is we have intervals or we don’t. It does all depend on the type of play and the production. As with everything we shouldn’t limit and restrict ourselves, but we should always have an open mind!