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Arts groups increasingly skipping intermission

| Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011

If the performing arts maintained an endangered species list, intermissions might well be ranked somewhere near the top.

During the past decade, many theater and dance events and some concerts have downsized to performances of 90 minutes or less, eliminating the need for a 15-minute break.

Neither "Electra" nor "Red,"the first two plays on Pittsburgh Public Theater's 2011-12 season feature an intermission. Mark Power, managing director at City Theatre, points out that, on average, half of the company's productions are performed without the traditional break.

Though concerts without intermissions are less common at Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performances, even that company has been known to program a single 90-minute Mahler symphony as a full, nonstop evening of music.

Following the trend toward shorter productions, companies have found ways to eliminate one of the two intermissions that were once standard with classical operas and ballets.

"People don't want to spend so much time in the theater," says Terrence Orr, artistic director at Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. Eliminating an intermission allows everyone to go home 15 minutes sooner, he says.

Intermissions are often not necessary for many contemporary works, says Pittsburgh playwright Tammy Ryan.

"Initially, intermissions were there because plays (as well as operas and ballets) were so long," Ryan says.

Pieces have become shorter and scene changes fewer and simpler.

"The more I've been at this, the more I realize the one-act play is now a full-length play," says Jeff Still, who plays Rothko in the Public's production of "Red." "There's something fun about that. It helps you focus when the stakes are higher, and you are just out there."

Still, intermissions have their uses and defenders.

"Sometimes, to create real magic, you need to bring down the house curtain," says Pittsburgh Opera stage manager Tara Kovach.

The company recently performed "La Traviata" with two full intermissions -- "just the way Verdi wrote it," she says.

Kovach and her crew needed every minute of those two intervals for set changes that called for swapping out staircases, removing wall sections and moving big pieces of furniture.

Opera singers also need those breaks to rest their voices, Kovach says.

Audiences appreciate having the traditional two-and-one-half-hour playing time of a classic opera or ballet divided into three acts by two intermissions, says Jonathan Eaton, artistic director at Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.

"In my world of opera, we need them," Eaton says. "After a while, my butt hurts. Most people don't want to sit longer than an hour and a half."

Theater patron Richard Miller agrees.

"Most audience members are mature -- my age," says Miller, 69, who favors intermissions for providing a pause that refreshes. "If I was 25, I could sit for two hours without a restroom break. At my age, I have a lot of difficulty sitting for two hours at a play."

Audiences also need a short interval to think about what they've experienced, says Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera executive producer Van Kaplan.

"In (developing) new works, it's always a part of the conversation," Kaplan says. "You have to look at whether or not you need an intermission or wish you would keep going. If you've got a lot of material in the production, the audience needs a break to let it process."

City Theatre's Power agrees.

Because City Theatre stages so many world premieres, its audiences are often watching plays that are new and unfamiliar.

"Sometimes, an intermission is a good time to think about what you saw and are going to continue seeing," Power says.

Cynics may suspect that arts producers also need those breaks to sell snacks, drinks and other merchandise.

Not so, Power says.

"We do not do a lot of business at intermission," says Power, who sees more customers at the concession stand before the show than during intermission. "What we sell most of at intermission is cookies. People are looking for a little bit of dessert."

Local performing arts organizations say it's difficult to assess how much money changes hands during intermission.

While the average Pittsburgh Cultural Trust patron will spend between $8 and $10 at a performance, sales figures aren't broken down into pre-show, intermission and post-show categories, says Veronica Corpuz, public relations director for the trust.

Intermissions are an important opportunity to conduct other business, though, says Lawrence Tamburri, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

"We sell tickets and subscriptions during intermissions," he says. "It's an opportunity to impart information on upcoming pieces and performances."

Tamburri also uses intermissions to touch base with concertgoers in Heinz Hall's donor lounge or to bring people backstage to meet the conductor.

"It builds relationships that are crucial," he says.

Nor should we discount the social aspects of intermission, Eaton says.

"It's an important part of a live performance," Eaton says. "At a live performance, there are social connections. That's important because it's a shared experience with the community, and interaction is part of the community experience."

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