Between the acts: It’s part of the show. You gawk at the crowd or crouch in a corner; you enjoy wine on the balcony or twist an ankle in the restroom stampede. You savor the performance and the breather, or you seethe that the evening’s dragging on a pointless extra 20 minutes or half-hour.
If there is an art to intermission, what are its elements of style? When is the long event transporting, and how does the break (or two) become the worst part of the night? The feeling varies from dance to music to theater, from night to night and place to place. And if you think Washington’s upgraded cultural meccas are all now geared for optimal experiences, it ain’t necessarily so.
What follows is a kaleidoscope of praise, gripes and prayers from Washington Post arts critics and writers who have found themselves elated, bored or just plain trapped between the acts.
Anne Midgette: What is its purpose? It’s supposed to be a part of the evening out: a chance to stretch your legs, think over what you’ve seen or heard so far, and people-watch. Intermission is a chance to get a sense of the social scene in a new country, or mingle with friends in your home town. Intermission is also an obligatory part of the proceedings, and the more obligatory it feels, the more of a drag it becomes.
Philip Kennicott, in another part of the lobby: Intermissions should be sexy, and Washington is not a sexy town. The 20-minute pauses in the show are now entirely functional, about servicing both ends of the alimentary canal. There’s no Balzac drama, no courtship, no intrigue, just a rush to the porcelain and, if you’re reckless with money, a cheap glass of barely palatable wine.
New York Times headline, Feb. 7, 2017: “Broadway’s Bathroom Problem: Have to Go? Hurry Up, or Hold It”
Nelson Pressley, wandering outside: There’s no good food; a critic shouldn’t drink (much), so it’s really about the view. I do like the Kennedy Center: There’s a river. There’s a rumor of a river outside the titanic window wall at Arena Stage, across the marina.
Few views lend a greater feeling of sophistication than the second-story vista of Shirlington — Lord, I said “Shirlington” — from Signature Theatre, which features a pretty good little bar and piano scene in its comparatively open space. And on a snowy night, you can’t top the sight of the towering Capitol dome from just in front of the Folger Theatre, three blocks east.
Favorite intermissions inside the theater? Umm . . .
Anonymous editor, fleeing down the aisle: For me, intermission’s only value is a quick getaway if the show has been dreadful. Or simply not worth another 90 minutes of one’s life. P.S. Why are so many productions clocking in close to three hours? If they weren’t so long, we wouldn’t need an intermission.
Geoff Edgers, bumping into his editor as he gazes toward the stage: A performance should be something you never want to end. And unless you’re talking the Ring Cycle, there is no legitimate reason for anyone to need a break. Sitting in the presence of great art should be the break. When we were in Athens recently and saw “Madame Butterfly” at the open-air theater at the Acropolis, it was such a relief to sit in an outdoor theater where the seats were too steep to waste a trip up and down the stairs for a glass of merlot.
Oh, did I mention: It started raining just after Pinkerton’s letter arrived, and the opera was cut short.
Peter Marks, observing a Bastille-like surge toward the women’s room: Let’s face it. Intermission is all about the bathroom, and the terrible way many performing arts venues calculate the number of stalls by gender. On more (but still, fairly rare) occasions, I find female patrons breaking with custom and invading the men’s room line, which almost always is the shorter one. And I say, more power to them. Unisex is the path to true midway-through-the-show democracy.
Boston Globe headline, May 29, 2017: “The real drama in Boston’s theater district? The intermission dash to the ladies’ room.”
Midgette: I think that Europe has intermissions figured out. There’s a frisson to wandering through the ornate public spaces of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, or the Staatsoper in Vienna, or the modern Philharmonie in Berlin, checking out the various exhibitions and eating options and getting a sense of who’s there (and what they’re wearing). On a recent visit to the Mariinsky during my first-ever visit to Russia, I felt right at home in the representative rooms, with their shabby-chic grandeur, their exhibits devoted to illustrious past singers, their long lines for coffee and open-face sandwiches. It reminded me of Central Europe, and gave me a sense of context for the performance.
But in the States, where a lot of our high-arts choices still feel somewhat imported, intermission does not feel quite so convivial. Wandering through the arid, barren lobby of the Kennedy Center, with its red carpet and its scrofulous head of Kennedy looming uncomfortably over patrons, is not exactly relaxing, although the recent addition of more seating has been a signal improvement.
Edgers, scowling at the souvenir stand: The problem, for a parent, is that intermission at a family musical doesn’t just break the magic, it’s designed to break the budget. You can fight it and tell the kids, who have already spotted the overpriced Pumbaa mug, that you aren’t buying today. But then you’re left with “do you know how much these tickets cost” or “can’t you just appreciate what you have,” the feelings of awe and inspiration sparked by Act 1 scrambled with the kind of moody conflict you could have had by simply walking by a Lego store.
Kennicott: The democratization of art, an admirable and necessary reform, meant a change in the audience, and why the audience is there. For the most part, people don’t go to the theater because they feel compelled by social pressure to be there. They go because they want to be there. People-watching isn’t as purposeful and strategic as it was a century ago, when the show onstage was only part of the larger “show” enacted by the audience.
There’s nothing to regret in that. But the democratization of art also came with a well-intentioned but unnecessary commitment to aesthetic austerity: Theater spaces, especially larger arts complexes such as the Kennedy Center, became bland, monumental and ugly; the “come as you are” invitation to the audience didn’t just allow in a new informality of dress, it drove out elegance, idiosyncrasy and bizzarrie. And one sad consequence of an aging audience is how few young people are mingling at intermission. Nothing is so delightfully ornamental as the young.
Midgette: Which is just the point: Intermission is a social activity. Yet, attending theater or concerts is increasingly less social. The hour-long intermissions in a Wagner opera are delightful if you can work a meal into them, with a different course between each act, whether you’re going to an Italian restaurant on the “Green Hill” of the Wagner festival in Bayreuth or enjoying a picnic with admirably organized friends in the Kennedy Center lobby. But if you’re aimlessly walking around clutching a plastic glass of warm chardonnay, the hour can begin to drag.
Anonymous editor: Can we discuss the wine? Why are the brands so bad? And why not offer a selection? I wouldn’t mind spending $10 for two inches of Kendall Jackson chardonnay in a plastic cup, but I’ve stopped buying the brand they serve at the Kennedy Center. Arena Stage has choices.
Interloper casually picking up a discarded program: “I’m second-acting. What’d I miss?”
Pressley: Best-ever people-watching night: As a grad student getting a lucky week in London, I stepped outside Wyndham’s Theatre during the break of Arthur Miller’s “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” and spotted the great playwright himself, chatting about the play (then in previews) with the equally tall, lean, professorial-looking director Michael Blakemore. Lurking nearby, possibly scoping out the lead role being played by Brit star Tom Conti, and not as tall as the blonde he was with: Al Pacino. Intermissions have rarely been so entertaining.
Midgette: Food is another subject unto itself. Why can’t the Kennedy Center offer slightly more imaginative, or varied, intermission fare? The Bavarian State Opera holds a special place in my heart for its long tradition of offering a choice between Rote Grutze — a red berry compote served with vanilla custard — and hot raspberries over vanilla ice cream. But while New York’s Lincoln Center has reinvented its culinary offerings, from the spiffed-up restaurant at the Metropolitan Opera to the public eateries at Alice Tully Hall and David Rubenstein Atrium — the Kennedy Center still offers its limited palate of sandwiches, cookies, and nut mixes.
The Wolf Trap Opera, in the diminutive Wolf Trap Barns, has intermission nailed: convivial spaces both indoors and out, a wide range of very good food and a full bar (don’t confuse it with the more mass-market Filene Center offerings), and permission to take both food and drink into the auditorium with you when the action resumes.
An usher wrestles a phone from a teenager taking a selfie in front of the set.
Kennicott: Art museums, where the people- watching is almost always much better, sometimes fill their galleries with round sofas, poofy and soft and slightly redolent of high-end brothels. They are inviting, and people tend to look good sitting on them. Theaters might pay better attention to the ergonomics of the furniture on offer; seating in the lobby should be not just plentiful and comfortable, it should flatter the sitter, and put him or her in slightly awkward proximity to other people.
It is curious that elegance and sex are used to sell almost everything today, yet the performing arts tend to avoid these things in their marketing strategies. And yet why do people go to the theater? A great part of the attraction is erotic, to see and hear stories about love and desire, and to watch beautiful people enact them. There are other stories, too, and they shouldn’t be slighted. But stripping social display and desire out of the experience of theater was probably a big mistake. Perhaps some adventurous company might experiment with the success of a new social media hashtag: #Igotlaidatintermission.