What Is a Beat In Acting An age-old saying offers a fundamental insight: when confronted with a substantial task, breaking it down into its smallest elements and tackling them step by step can prove immensely helpful. This principle rings true for performers preparing for new roles. By dissecting a script into its tiniest components, actors gain deeper insights into their characters and roles within the overarching narrative.
These components are referred to as “beats.” The ability to recognize and comprehend beats is an invaluable skill for actors. Identifying beats in a script enables performers to examine their characters closely, exploring their essence in every moment and understanding their role within the grander story.
Defining a Beat
In the realm of drama, a beat encapsulates any individual instance of change within a scene. It encompasses moments when the scene’s mood or tone shifts, or when characters respond to stimuli that alter their course. Unlike scenes or acts, which writers clearly demarcate, beats are often not explicitly indicated in scripts; performers are tasked with defining them. Consequently, the interpretation of a beat can vary among individuals.
Actor Jon Root, renowned for roles in productions like “Avenue Q” on Broadway, considers a beat as an “inflection point.” However, he emphasizes that these points of change can be subtle and need not always accompany monumental shifts in the story. Root explains, “It’s merely a moment when something changes—either within the character or in the external environment. People react, and change ensues. That’s where drama resides.”
Cathryn Hartt, a respected acting coach and founder of the Hartt & Soul Studio, concurs. She underscores that acting revolves around characters striving to achieve their objectives, and actors should utilize beats to “plot your shifts in objectives.”
Unearthing Beats in a Script
Identifying beats while dissecting a script revolves around recognizing instances of change. Heidi Cox, an actor and co-founder of Dweeb Darlings production company, follows a multi-pronged approach. She examines the script multiple times, identifying shifts in tone or rhythm within scenes. Cox even reads the lines aloud to discern any variations that might elude silent reading.
Cox also acknowledges the merits of seeking outside perspectives. Collaborating with a coach can shed fresh light on the identification of beats. “An external viewpoint and an additional pair of eyes can prove invaluable,” she asserts.
Hartt, in her coaching capacity, emphasizes that pinpointing beats involves marking the moments when characters shift their objectives. “When you attain your objective, you require a new one. When you concede, you necessitate a new one. An interruption also demands a new objective,” she elucidates.
Root likens identifying beats to a musical analogy, particularly in comedy. “Spotting beats in comedy differs somewhat from drama. In comedy, everything often builds toward punchlines or comedic resolutions to the characters’ situations,” he clarifies. “Comedy carries a rhythm, and the shifts in dynamics—the ‘setups’—constitute the beats.”
If a script is a river, envision each beat as a stone cast into the water, altering its course. While their size and impact may differ, each contributes to shaping the water’s path and eventual destination.
Diverse Beat Categories
In broad terms, a beat signifies any juncture within a script or screenplay that alters a character’s or scene’s trajectory. Yet, these changes can occur through various avenues. Typically, changes fall into four primary categories: physical beats, tonal beats, topical beats, and tactical beats.
Physical Beats: These occur when something shifts within the physical realm of a scene. It might involve a character entering or exiting, transitioning from one setting to another, or changes in environmental conditions like rain. These shifts prompt characters to react physically, forming a sequence of physical beats.
Tonal Beats: Tonal beats manifest whenever the scene’s emotional temperature shifts. This can involve a villain discarding niceties or a deceptive friend revealing the truth. Whenever a conversation’s mood changes or tension escalates or diminishes, a tonal beat emerges.
Topical Beats: Similar to everyday conversations, where topics shift, characters in scripts can pivot their focus due to intentional subject changes or new information. This includes characters intentionally altering the conversation’s direction or adapting to new information, marking a topical beat.
Tactical Beats: These materialize when a character shifts their approach to achieve their objective. This occurs when, during an argument, a character strategically switches their stance to manipulate the other party into supporting their initial idea.
The Significance of Understanding Beats for Actors
For actors, comprehending their character’s beats is indispensable. This understanding breathes life into characters, making them authentic and fully realized. Root asserts that mastering beats is not just advantageous—it’s paramount. “It’s about understanding the scene’s trajectory, not merely stitching together prepared moments,” he articulates. “Storytelling comprehension is crucial. A story isn’t from A to B; it’s A to Z with numerous letters in between. These letters are the beats.”
Root contends that this storytelling insight is vital for delivering compelling performances. “An actor should grasp not only their character but also their character’s role within the larger narrative,” he adds. “What purpose does your character serve in this story? Aligning this with your character’s essence molds the performance.”
Cox echoes this sentiment, underscoring actors’ roles as storytellers. “Characters generally possess arcs or obstacles to overcome. Beats aid in tracing the character’s journey through these challenges,” she explains.
Hartt also emphasizes that understanding beats fosters a more engaging performance, as scenes surprise audiences by shifting dynamically.
Should You Annotate Beats in a Script?
Hartt finds value in marking beats in scripts, using visual cues to pinpoint transitions. Cox, however, reserves such annotations for specific roles, particularly those requiring intricate cues in theater and comedy. Meanwhile, Root recommends marking beats, especially in more intricate works like Shakespeare. He contends that consensus among actors and directors is essential to establish subjective beats, which shape the narrative’s thrust.
Marking Beats in a Script: Strategies and Benefits The method of marking beats varies according to an actor’s preference, but consistency is key. Root, for instance, jots down phrases like “shift?” or “notice?” beside lines as reminders. He emphasizes that while his lines matter, fellow actors’ contributions influence his reaction. “Ultimately, the other actor’s input shapes how I ‘shift’ or ‘notice.’ These are inflection points,” he elucidates.
Rehearsing and Embracing Beats Despite the effort involved in analyzing beats, their understanding can simplify the rehearsal process. Hartt explains that comprehending beats enables actors to stay immersed in the moment, fostering struggle and conflict between characters. For Cox, rehearsal illuminates beats within plays, and live audiences often reveal additional layers.
For film roles, Cox embraces an organic approach, discovering new nuances during scenes with partners and directors. The element of surprise enhances authenticity, she attests.
Analyzing Beats for Auditions
According to Root, an actor’s primary role is auditioning, and beat understanding is vital. Recognizing “normal” and “stressed” character aspects, and the catalyst that shifts between them, is pivotal. Root emphasizes that beats are even more crucial in auditions than during performances. Demonstrating grasp of a character’s role in the story signals preparedness for the part.
In summary, whether for theater or film, small or substantial roles, mastering beats is essential for actors