If you’ve been to the theater lately, you may have noticed something missing: the intermission.
The musical Come From Away, about what happened in Gander, Newfoundland, when 38 planes were stranded there on Sept. 11, 2001, came and went from the Academy of Music this season without a break in its 100 heartfelt minutes. The Band’s Visit was even shorter. In 95 minutes, it also told a story about extending a warm welcome to accidental visitors, running straight through to their departure.
Ivo van Hove’s new Broadway revival of West Side Story, which runs an hour and 45 minutes, has been streamlined to exclude both the song “I Feel Pretty” and the original’s intermission. “I want to make a juggernaut,” the Belgian director told Vogue. “You feel that these people are running toward their death and there’s no escape from it.”
Add in intermission-free shows like Jacqueline Goldfinger’s new 90-minute Babel (through March 8, Theatre Exile), the 90-minute Once on This Island (May 21-June 21, Arden Theatre Co.), and the 90-minute The Wolves (April 10-May 3, Philadelphia Theatre Company) and it’s clear theatergoers can no longer take it for granted that there will be an opportunity to answer nature’s call — or visit the bar — before the curtain call.
On the plus side, going to the theater on a weeknight doesn’t have to mean a bleary-eyed morning after.
If you’re a playwright today, “you have to earn that intermission,” said the Philadelphia-based Goldfinger (The Arsonists, Skin & Bone), citing Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night at the Wilma (through Feb. 22) as an example of a meaty enough story to merit one.
"There’s so much history where you have to make connections between historical figures and what’s happening onstage. It’s not told chronologically, so your brain is working really hard to make those connections. By the time you get to intermission, your brain is ready for a break,” she said. “And the second act blows your mind.”
By contrast, her Babel, a play about one possible future driven by prenatal testing, is set “in a space we understand,” and without time jumps. "I can tell a satisfying story in the 90 minutes.”
And if there were an intermission?
Goldfinger said her story “relies on a building of pressure and momentum toward a decision. ... If you’re in a high-pressure situation, and you take a break, and you let the pressure dissipate, it’s really hard to get it back.”
“I love when a show has no intermission," said Satchel Williams, who stars in the one-woman play A Hundred Words for Snow (through Feb. 23, Inis Nua Theatre), which also runs 90 minutes with no intermission. "A good story told concisely is incredible to me.”
Speaking as both “an actor and an audience member,” she said, "Some stories think they need to be long. But they don’t. … I think we’ve just gotten used to stories taking longer than they need to.”
Maybe not for much longer: A study of the 2019-20 U.S. theater season found that of 80 new plays represented in a survey, 62 percent were being presented without intermissions.
Locally, “that’s not a data point we collect, for me to be able to say, ‘this many productions without intermissions were in the season,' ” said Leigh Goldenberg, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia. She nevertheless said she’s seen a trend toward shorter, intermissionless shows, something she thinks is partly driven by finances. “What we’re encouraging our theater makers to do is to create smaller and smaller works.”
And then there’s the time/attention span issue (more on that in a bit). “We just want to get to the next thing quicker. In Shakespeare’s time your whole activity for the night was to enjoy a three-hour play, which you would stand up for,” said Goldenberg, whose organization promotes the region’s theater and oversees the Barrymore Awards.
For those who still like an evening of theater to take up the entire evening, there’s no shortage of longer shows.
The Lehman Trilogy, coming to Broadway in March after sold-out engagements in London and New York’s Park Avenue Armory, has been running 3½ hours, with two intermissions.
Dear Evan Hansen, the Tony-winning musical from Ardmore’s Benj Pasek and his songwriting partner, Justin Paul, is coming to Philadelphia’s Forrest Theatre April 7-19, and runs a more traditional 2½ hours, with a single intermission.
On Broadway, The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez’s two-part reimagining of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, is running 3 hours, 15 minutes, with two intermissions, for Part 1, and 3 hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission and one 5-minute “pause,” for Part 2.
“If you look at what’s opening on Broadway this season, you’ve got Moulin Rouge and [the musical about] Tina Turner, which are two-plus hours with intermission. And then you’ve got a show as short as Six, which is ... all but 80 minutes long,” said Frances Egler, senior director of programming and presentations for the Kimmel Center.
A member of the Broadway League and a Tony voter, Egler books the Kimmel’s Broadway Philadelphia series, which in the coming months will include the intermission-free Jesus Christ Superstar (April 7-12, Academy of Music) and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical (June 2-7, Academy of Music).
There was a time when intermissions were social occasions, “but that was a long time ago,” she said. “With the rise of other art forms,” things have changed. “Films can be 90 minutes with no intermission so why not a theatrical play? … What’s the length they need to tell their story?” she said.
"We don’t make a decision on booking based on whether there’s an intermission or not,” Egler said. The goal is to make sure that “whether it’s three hours or an hour and a half, that [audiences are] going to leave satisfied.”
Asked about the perception that younger theatergoers might be attracted to shorter plays, “You don’t want to sound like, ‘Well, these kids can’t sit still for that,’ " Egler said. "It’s how you engage them.”
“I chuckle at the idea that like millennials can’t sit still," said Goldfinger. "Are you kidding me? They can sit still for hours and play games, and do board games and do entire runs of shows on Netflix.
“If you go and see some of these longer plays like August: Osage County, I saw that and it was almost all a millennial audience and nobody breathed for three hours,” she said. "You see Describe the Night, right now at the Wilma, that attracts younger audiences, they’re sitting through a three-hour piece and loving it. It has nothing to do with attention span.”
It might, though, have to do with how attention is paid.
“As our minds evolve, as technology evolves, we’re used to gathering in larger and larger amounts of information,” Goldfinger said. “If you go back and you read like [a Eugene] O’Neill classic,” it might “mention pieces of information two or three or four times to make sure the audience gets it.”
Today, “because our brains have evolved and our understanding of storytelling has evolved, we are just able to process a lot more,” she said. “We now can have a much wider breadth of diversity in our storytelling. ... It’s like Netflix has come along in theater.”
Our brains may be evolving. But what of, ahem, our bladders?
If you’ve ever squirmed in your seat waiting, not so patiently and maybe even in vain, for an intermission, Williams feels your discomfort.
The 22-year-old Temple grad has built up stamina as she spends 90 minutes alone onstage in A Hundred Words for Snow, where she plays a 15-year-old girl traveling to the North Pole to fulfill her late father’s dream.
But in Temple Theaters’ November 2016 production of Marat/Sade, Williams said, she had been fighting illness that had spread through much of the cast. Because she was singing, she was trying to stay hydrated.
She visited the bathroom three times in the 30 minutes before the show, but one night found herself desperate onstage, in a two-hour performance with no intermission. Knowing that her character had a short window where she probably wouldn’t be missed, she decided to slip offstage for a few minutes.