When an actor analyzes a scene for beats, they are looking for shifts in action (the actions they are taking as a character).
Why? Because acting is about action, about doing things to get what you want from the other character or characters who share a scene with you.
Being able to identify the different actions you are taking and to pinpoint where and why they change is key to giving a specific performance of your role.
It also fosters presence: knowing what action you are taking at a given point in time gives you something to focus on accomplishing in the moment.
This is far more important than worrying about what you’re feeling at any given moment. It bears repeating here that emotion springs from action and not the other way around.
Identifying Beats in a Script
Identifying where one action ends and another begins can be tricky. Always use a pencil for this work as you will likely be doing a lot of erasing and re-drawing of beat lines.
Sometimes it’s very clear where one action your character is taking ends and another begins.
Sometimes it only becomes clear when you’re on your feet in rehearsal, or after repeated readings.
And sometimes it’s a matter of interpretation: you may think one thing while your director may think another…or you yourself may change your mind about where a beat should properly be.
So, once again, always use a pencil and not a pen for this kind of work, and keep your eraser handy.
Pointers for identifying beats
Here are some pointers to guide you in the important process of identifying beats:
Remember that beats are subdivisions of a Unit (= objective)
If you have identified an objective for a unit and feel confident it makes sense, use that objective as a guideline. This focusses the task for you considerably. Each action your character takes must be something that will help them achieve their objective.
If you keep coming up with actions that have zero or only dubious connection to achieving a reasonable objective, you may be misidentifying actions, or beats, or your objective, or you may simply misunderstand the scene (Shakespeare can be complicated, after all).
Look for events that automatically will involve a shift in action (and sometimes objective): exits, entrances, discoveries (new information), and major decisions.
Look for the stage directions pause, beat, or silence. There’s almost always a shift that takes place during one or else the playwright wouldn’t have written one in. Shakespeare writes in pauses by giving his characters incomplete (short) lines in iambic pentameter that are not completed by a character who speaks either before or after you.
If one character asks a question and another answers it (immediately or a few lines later), consider the section beginning with the question and ending with the answer might possibly be a beat (because new information).
Look for changes in the topic of conversation; if the topic changes, often the nature of the action is changing.
Beats may be of any length: one sentence, two lines, or even (unlikely, but possible) a whole scene.
If you think your beats start a line earlier or later than your scene partner does, don’t worry about it so long as you agree on the nature of the shift.
Don’t assume you’ll identify them all the first time you try.
While you don’t want to over-beat the Unit, it’s not a bad idea to overdo the beat division at first and then pare it down as you go. That’s why you use a pencil, after all.
HELP WITH BEAT SHIFTS
WHAT HAPPENS BETWEEN BEATS?
As we have defined it (and as is the general practice when analyzing a scene), a BEAT marks a change in ACTION.
By ACTION, we mean an action your character is taking in order to achieve their OBJECTIVE.
And by OBJECTIVE, we mean what you ultimately want the other character in the scene to do for you. For example:
to tell you something (I love you, I was wrong, their deep, dark secret, the location of the treasure is, etc.)
to agree to something (a date, an evil plan, to move in with you, to take a holiday vacation with you, etc.)
to perform some kind of action (to remain with you, to leave, to give you something, to keep something for you, to drink the poisoned tea, etc.)
to show you a clear sign of something (they are comforted, they love you, they are sorry for something they’ve done, etc.)
The Transition from One Beat to the Next
But what happens between the end of one beat and the beginning of another?
Obviously when we change tack (change what we’re doing, change actions) in the process of trying to get someone to do something for us in real life, we don’t magically, suddenly change actions for no reason.
Most importantly, when we’re playing a part, we don’t “act” the change of action (that is, we don’t “pretend” we’re changing the action, or “indicate” that we’re changing the action), we actually make the decision to change the action, whether we come to that decision by instinct or by thinking it through.
If our instincts aren’t working in rehearsal, then we resort to analysis. And because you’re taking this course in part to learn how to analyze the scene, you need to analyze your beat changes from this perspective regardless.
Finding the Reason for the Change
We do this by asking questions, beginning with why the change is occurring. You will generally switch actions for four or five reasons:
Your previous action has met with success and now they need to move on to the next action (you may or may not know what that next action is in the moment)
Your previous action has failed or is failing badly enough that you must try another action
The other person changes their action, forcing a corresponding change in yours
You receive new information from the other character that changes your understanding of what you need to do in the moment enough that you must change
Something unforeseen occurs (a phone rings, somebody faints, you suddenly notice lipstick on your lover’s collar, the clock strikes three, etc.) that requires you take a new and different action (this could be that he other character changes tactics, forcing you to make a corresponding change, or
Discovering the Nature of the Change
Once you’ve identified the reason for the change, there are other questions to consider.Here are a few important ones:
Is the change a really big one, a small one or somewhere in between?
Is it a good change, a bad one, or somewhere in between?
Is the change expected, unexpected or somewhere in between?
Does the change take you further toward your objective, or is it more of an obstacle, or something in between?
Is the new action one you might have planned or logically anticipated, or are you improvising it on the fly?
Are you initiating the change in beat?If so, then during that new beat (and any other beat that you initiate), you are the character who is driving the scene. Rather than react, you need to be the one who is actively pushing the scene forward by pressing your scene partner with your action (your scene partner must still wrestle to take the momentum back, but you must maintain it regardless).
How close are you to achieving your objective?Could the next beat seal the deal, or is it just one more step along the way?
The answers to these questions will offer guidance as to how you might approach and attack the next beat.
To Keep in Mind
A few more notes to keep in mind:
To discover your instinctual reaction, let yourself be affected by what you are hearing (if you really need your objective, you will be affected); your impulse to speak should spring from the impact of your scene partner’s words/action toward you.
Sometime you have to think the change through. In this case especially, don’t be afraid to give yourself time to think how you, as your character, are going to respond
Take a beat to let your reaction or thoughts crystallize into action if you need to. If your speaking verse and your line is a short unfinished line, you can take a pause; if your thought ends (full stop) at the end of a line, then if you need to, you can take a beat before you begin the next line.
Don’t get ahead of yourself. At any particular moment, your character has no idea what’s going to happen next. Deal with your scene partner’s offers moment by moment, and with each beat change as it happens. This is how the story of the scene gets told.
BREAKING DOWN A SPEECH
One of the most useful things you can do with a monologue, whether it’s a speech or a soliloquy, is to break it down into broad sections and subsections that help you understand what’s changing and what’s different about what you’re doing from one moment to the next.
This is analogous to breaking a scene down into units and beats.
This process does more than just help you understand your monologue better, it helps you to find both the variety that’s already built into its structure and achieve greater specificity in your performance because you will be aware of what makes one thing you say different from the next.
How many times have we heard a speech delivered in the same tone from start to finish? When that happens, it’s usually because the actor hasn’t yet discovered the changes that their character is undergoing, and/or pinpointed the differences in precisely what they’re saying from one moment to the next.
Here are a few tips to help you do this.
If you’re stuck, remember your guiding values in this exercise are difference and change: what’s different about one thought compared to the one before or after it? Where is there a clear change in my character’s focus, action or understanding of themselves or their situation?
In Shakespeare, a section or beat will almost always end with a full stop (i.e. a period, exclamation point, question mark, or interrupted thought marked with a dash). If you find yourself drawing a line through the middle of a thought (i.e. a sentence) think very carefully about “why?”. Is there any good reason why that division absolutely can’t be made at the end of the thought?
Start with the obvious. Look for interruptions – sudden entrances or appearances of other characters, sudden noises the character notices, objects they discover (i.e. Look, here comes so-and-so. What was that I heard? What’s this I see on the ground?). Such interruptions will always change what your character is doing.
Look for changes to whom you’re addressing: you may switch from talking to one character to talking to another, or from the audience to God or to a personification of Time, Love, Fate, etc.
If your speech is in the form of an argument, your character will often introduce it with some kind of thesis statement, then support their thesis with a point or two, then make a conclusion. Look for broad section divisions along those lines.
If your character is giving an explanation, they will often begin with some kind of initial statement – an acknowledgement or broad summary – follow it with excuses or reasons – and end with a plea or a different version of their summary. Look for broad section divisions along those lines.
If your character is dealing with a difficult situation, they will often begin with an outline of the problem, then consider their way through it, possibly make a big discovery at some point, and conclude by making a decision about what to do to fix things. Look for broad section divisions along those lines.
If your character is telling a story, it will usually have a beginning, middle and end.
Not all monologues break down neatly into three broad sections. Some may have more than three.Some may have less. Interruptions in the middle of a monologue can complicate things, resulting in extra sections. Sometimes more than three sections can indicate that your character is dealing with a particularly complicated issue. Interruptions at the end may be an explanation for why there seem to be less than three big sections – maybe your character is cut off before they can conclude things. Alternatively, they may be obsessing over one particular thing, coming back to it in a repetitive, cyclical pattern.
Look for discoveries your character makes about people or new ideas – anything they hadn’t considered before.
Key words indicating a moment of discovery (often but not always): Thus, therefore, O, So.
If your character asks a big question, look to see if any answer occurs to them at later point. The answer may create a new problem for the character, or it may clarify what they need to do next. In either case, their understanding of their situation will have changed at that moment, and what they say next will be about doing something completely new.
Look for decisions your character makes about what to do about a problem.
Key words or phrases indicating a decision has been made (sometimes but not always): will, shall, must, will not, shall not, must not, if.
At any rate, you’re looking for the big turning points in your monologue that help an audience understand that something is happening during your speech, which is key to what will make it worth watching and hearing.
Once you’ve found a division into broad sections that helps you get a handle on the structure if your speech from an overarching perspective, begin to look very closely at what is different within each of those sections. Here the differences may be more subtle, but they’re there. Characters only repeat themselves by using the exact same word or wording more than once. If the words are different, they’re not repeating themselves, they’re saying something different, and we must discover what that is.
Look for shifts in rhetorical tactics (ways of arguing a point). We will learn to recognize these better starting next week.
Look for events in a story, items in a list, reasons in an argument, etc.
In any case, remember that whatever form your speech takes, each thought is a new and different stepping stone along the path of a journey your character is taking through the play. You must discover what makes each of those stones different from the others, and how each is positioned to propel your character forward through that journey, so that the audience can enjoy that journey along with you.
HELP WITH TACTICS
In this class, we define a tactic as how a character goes about taking any given action.
An action is something one character does to another character in order to get what they want from them (their objective).
When reading a script, the actor’s primary concern is to identify their character’s actions and the reasons for them (super objective, objective) based on the given circumstances of the play.
The actor identifies their actions by dividing the script into beats; each beat, whether long or short, is a period over which their character is doing the same action.
How they take those actions (tactics) are an element of artistic interpretation.
If your character’s first beat of action in a scene is to greet another character, there are many ways they could go about it: politely, rudely, cautiously, flatteringly, grudgingly, excitedly, graciously, etc.
The above terms are all adverbs, and I use them mostly to give you a quick idea of how the same action can be performed in many ways. There is a very important thing to keep in mind when expressing tactics using adverbs, which I will get to later on.
But first, it will be obvious that some tactics you might choose will be appropriate and others will be inappropriate, depending on the situation your character is in and what they want from the character they’re speaking to.
For example, if your character wants a favour of some sort from the person they are greeting, it probably wouldn’t make sense to greet them rudely.
On the other hand, human behaviour is complex, so it’s conceivable that your character might try using reverse psychology on someone, or that rudeness might be part of their personality, in which case a rude greeting might make sense in spite of the greeter’s objective to get a favour from the person they’re addressing.
So, your guide for identifying possible tactics you could use is always your objective (i.e. will it be a helpful tactic in achieving your objective? If not, try it only as a last resort).
What’s the point of all this?
Before I go any further, it’s important to understand that ideally:
tactics are employed instinctively and in the moment during rehearsal or performance; and
the tactics your scene partner employs to get what they want from you will also be instinctive and organic responses to the tactics you use to get what you want from them (and vice versa).
Two key things to take from this are:
Writing down tactics is not about helping you decide beforehand what tactics you will use at any given moment in the scene.That would be as bad as deciding beforehand what you should feel at any given moment in a scene.
If actors in a scene are truly working off what they receive from one another from moment to moment during a scene, then when one actor changes a single tactic on a single action, it should somehow automatically affect the tactics of the actions that follow. The effect doesn’t have to be large, or lasting, but there should be some effect if the actors are truly living the scene and not just giving a pre-ordained performance.
So, if that’s the case, why do I ask you to go through all the trouble of identifying and writing them down?
There are two main reasons:
First, this course is about learning a creative process, a process that all actors need to be able to bring to rehearsal and performance.Putting tactics into words is an exercise designed to help you learn and practice that process, and discover useful ways of expressing and understanding it.
Second, instinct doesn’t always work. Sometimes it just doesn’t come.Sometimes your instincts are out of tune with your character’s.It happens.When this happens, it’s important for you to be able to discover and try different tactics through analysis.
Tactics in the written assignment:
For the assignment, you have been asked to come up with three different tactics for each beat of action.
To do this, you need to be able to identify the actual action of each beat.I have not explicitly asked you to do this as part of the assignment, however be aware that this is an important step in the process, and that writing it down at the top of the beat will be a helpful reference point for you.
You also do not need to come up with three tactics for each objective suggested for the same unit if your scene breaks down in such a way that you have only one or two units (and therefore, as I’ve required in the assignment, one Unit will have two or three alternative objectives).
Finally, as this is an exercise where I’ve asked you only to identify three tactics per beat, I should make it clear that as a beat gets longer, you may in practice end up using any number of tactics over its course, and often more than three.
Tips for expressing tactics:
Here are some tips to help you come up with wordings that can express different tactics:
It’s important to keep in mind, especially with adverbs, but also with any of these ways of expressing tactics, not to lose the action in playing the tactic.The action is what makes the tactic specific, rather than a general wash of attitude.
Playing a “role”: examples: playing the devil’s advocate, playing the den mother, playing the injured party, etc.
As-ifs: As-if is a very powerful pair of words; by putting those two words before your key Given Circumstances, you may be surprised how it works on your imagination.Here it can be used a bit like a simile: as if they were an idiot; as if they were my wayward child; as if this was the one hundredth time I’d told them, etc.
Imagery (Metaphors): They’re an animal; they’re an angel; I’m a razor blade; I’m a sledgehammer; I’m a security blanket…
Imagery (Simile): Like I’m taking out the garbage; like they’re a very bad dog who wet the carpet
Adverbs: politely, rudely, cautiously, flatteringly, grudgingly, excitedly, graciously, etc.
Specific and vivid verbs: While I like to reserve using verbs for single lines, they can be used to express tactics.As with verbing lines, verbs that are not vague and everyday (push, pull, ask, seduce, attract are everyday or vague; shove, yank, grill, caress, beckon are, respectively, better more vivid and specifically activating alternatives, among many) and particularly verbs that you can actually do to another person, are excellent because they are direct and active.
Different tactical choices can also be called offers.This is a more directorial term, but actors should understand that making different tactical choices on the same beat is effectively offering a director – and their scene partner(s) – a different interpretation of their action and, possibly, the scene.
If you’re stuck for a tactic and it doesn’t seem to be working, try the exact opposite tactic and see how that shakes things up .