Reports of the Interval’s death are greatly exaggerated

In the run-up to theatres reopening, and all the safeguards put in place by theatres, there has been much knee-jerk reaction about having to dispense with the interval. This is nonsense and will gradually subside as we return to our established ways of functioning. However, it did make me think about the interval, how it developed and its many benefits from both an audience and a theatre-maker’s point of view.

The interval, as I understand it, originally developed in the time when candles were the only available source of illumination in places where performances were given. Thus, the performance paused when the candles which sat along the front of the stage to give illumination (the first footlights) needed to be replaced as they had burned down. From the early 1800s gas lighting was slowly introduced but the concept of the interval had been well enough established to survive.

As the play structure developed through the nineteenth century, the three act format became the most prevalent, and this offered a choice as to whether there should be one interval with two acts running together, or one interval and a short “pause” at the other act changeover.

Although plays were originally written to run straight through, as times, tastes and audiences changed, the interval was seen as beneficial by theatre managers for a number of reasons – chiefly to sell more drinks at their bars, and also as a chance for the audience to socialise with other theatregoers. Intervals increasingly became established as an opportunity to send audiences out buzzing with excitement and anticipation of what was to come in the rest of the performance. A good “first-act curtain” was a cliff-hanger, a revelation or shock, upon which the audience were encouraged to speculate for the duration of the interval given.

Modern audiences welcome a chance to think about the show and discuss it with their companions and friends. Other choose to stretch their legs, pop outside for a smoke, grab an overpriced drink from one of the theatre’s bars, or pop to the loo. One of audiences’ bugbears throughout history have been theatre loos. Why so few for ladies down the decades? Because fewer women than men attended the theatre at the times when a lot of the UK’s theatres were built (many over a century ago), one is lead to believe. With women’s progress over the decades in financial and social independence, it is appalling that only very recently have attempts been made to increase loo facilities for ladies, and much more needs to be done.

For producers, intervals can offer the chance of a rest for performers. It can also allow stage scenery and settings to be changed at a more leisurely pace then when changing scenes. Technically, it can also offer a breather to sort any technical issues which may have arisen during the first act. If the show has a live orchestra, interval can also give a well-earned rest for the musos and conductor- even more so when the conductor is also a playing band member, as is so often the case these days.

For the theatre owners, intervals are a useful way of increasing their income from bar sales, confectionery, ice cream and merchandise. All of these go directly to the theatre owners, with the exception of merchandise which usually is a split-profit agreement. Programmes are the responsibility of the theatre owners; brochures fall under merchandise.

For playwrights themselves, the interval’s relevance can sometimes (but not always) be determined from the length of the show. Some shows are deemed too short to warrant one, others are specifically written without an interval, and very long shows sometimes include a five-minute “pause” (as was the case in the two-part THE INHERITANCE in 2018/19). Longer shows can also involve more than one interval.

Cynics might say that the interval gives them a chance to get out of a truly terrible show, and true as this may be, truly bad shows in the 21st century are few and far between.

So let’s carry on enjoying the interval, safely and thoughtfully. There might be a time when you’ll really be grateful for it!


One Reply to “Reports of the Interval’s death are greatly exaggerated”

  1. We don’t need to wait for the intermission (as it’s called here in the USA) to leave a bad show — we go at the end of a scene.
    If we stick around (which is the case 99% of the time), we know that there’s only 45 minutes left following the start of the final act.
    One of the best times we ever had at a Broadway show was the recent revival of “Merrily We Roll Along”. 95 minutes, no intermission. Quite exhilarating.

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