The Death of the Interval: why audiences and programmers need a break

The interval: a twenty minute breather during a show, the chance to buy a drink, some ice-cream, talk with companions, and even run away if necessary. The interval is a staple of many West End productions and regional receiving houses, accounting for a fair percentage of the income possible on a performance as well as offering audiences a prolonged evening out. So why is it that the interval is becoming a rarity in contemporary performance? Just last week I attended Birdland at The Royal Court to find that the show was 1 hour 50 minutes without an interval. The show was excellent throughout, but my knees didn’t feel quite as entertained.

The debate around the interval has been part of a wider discussion at house about how we find and why we programme work. To date, house has toured 24 productions and only one of these had an interval. The majority of the shows were just over or under an hour, with one running at 100 minutes without an interval. With those stats you may presume that we don’t care about giving audiences a break, but you’d be wrong. The reality is that contemporary theatre shows with intervals are becoming a rarity.  This has clear connections with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the ‘stack ’em high’ festival model adopted by venues in London such as Soho Theatre. During the Edinburgh Fringe last year I didn’t see one show with an interval, and to be honest a show longer than an hour felt like a big commitment in my schedule when almost everything else is running at 50 – 60 minutes. A lot of contemporary work has adapted to best suit fringe audiences and venues, both in London and Edinburgh, meaning that their subsequent tours and transfers follow a format that doesn’t necessarily work best for regional audiences and programmers.

However, regardless of the constraints of Edinburgh, recognition must be given to the difficulty faced by artists creatively and financially to sustain a show past an hour. Consider the added rehearsal time for those extra forty minutes, the cost of rehearsal space, and the pressure to create a sense of suspension which would make the audience want to come back after the first half. It’s a big commitment to make both financially and creatively, and in a Grants for the Arts system it could be a risk that many aren’t willing to take. Commenting on the interval from his perspective, Rhys Thomas of Hertford Theatre noted that “some shows benefit from an interval, others clearly don’t – and it’s not just about duration  – it’s about the intensity of the experience, but much of the new work that passes across my desk or that I see does not have an interval. By engaging with the concept of an interval the work can achieve a greater impact by enabling audiences to reflect collectively on the narrative (if there is one) and content. From a venue perspective an interval is a valuable thing. For a company engaged in the development of new work, it represents a real challenge.”

But what of the people who we make work for? Charging £12 for a ticket in a regional town venue for an hour-long show doesn’t necessarily scream value for money to audiences. But on the other hand, length doesn’t mean quality. I’m sure many people recall the hype surrounding L’Apres-Midi d’un Foehn or ‘the carrier bag show’ in Edinburgh last year, which was only 35 minutes long and was a huge hit.

Coming back to the bigger picture of house and our discussions, this debate lies in the context of what will give venues the best opportunity to develop audiences and their programme. Consideration for how audiences perceive a programme experientially is important, and many venue programmers consider an interval as a great audience engagement tool, as well as an opportunity to recoup some of their show fee on the bar. Rhys commented, “for a venue such as ours, which is embedded in its community, the interval represents a real opportunity to for our audiences to catch-up, chat about what’s going on in the town and, of course, engage in discussion about the evening’s show”.

I wonder how many theatre makers and producers really take the time to consider an interval. Through my own experience outside of house as a producer, I know that the priority is to make a show, and if an interval fits then it is included. It wouldn’t be appropriate to prioritise an interval during the early stages of making a show (unless for a specific commission), but perhaps a little more time should be spent considering what the loss of an interval would mean to a venue. Without that audience engagement, income and ‘good night out’ component, some venues may be forced to reduce the fee available to company, or perhaps ask the artist to share the risk equally.

And then, what of the artistic merit of an interval? Are there any producers fighting the corner for this reason? Rhys gave some venue perspective on how his audiences value the break in between: “with an interval the experience of seeing the show can deepen; returning to an auditorium to watch the second half of a strong show can be wonderful – the expectation and excitement even greater than at the outset – now that the world of the piece is defined, the themes and ideas established; waiting to be developed to their denouement”.

This is a clearly a grey area of debate, where there are many determining factors for the death of the interval and many reasons behind why that could be a positive development for theatre makers and fringe venue models. It is apparent, however, that the interval, when done right, holds much potential for audiences and regional venues, and just a little more conversation about that can only be a good thing.

Sarah Wilson

marketing & engagement coordinator for house