How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
It’s a common idiom with a simple meaning: When faced with a large task, it can be helpful to break it down into its smallest components, and then tackle those pieces one by one. This is certainly helpful if you’re a performer preparing for a new role. By breaking down a script into its smallest components, actors can better understand their character and role within the larger story.
These components are known as beats. Learning to identify and understand beats are invaluable skills for an actor. Pinpointing the beats in a script allows performers to put their characters under a microscope and explore who they are, what makes them tick in each moment, and how they fit into the story overall.
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A beat in drama is any individual instance of change within a scene. Any time the mood or tone of a scene shifts—or the characters react to something that prompts them to alter their trajectory—that’s a beat.
Unlike a scene or an act, which are delineated by writers, beats are not typically marked in the script and are up to the performers to define for themselves. It’s unsurprising, then, that the definition of a beat can vary from person to person.
Actor Jon Root, whose stage credits include “Avenue Q” on Broadway and Las Vegas and “The Toxic Avenger” at New World Stages, describes a beat as “an inflection point.” But he’s quick to point out that those inflection points can often be subtle and don’t have to accompany a seismic shift in the story. “It’s just a moment when something changes, either within the character or outside of the character,” he says. “People react and people change. That’s drama.”
Acting coach Cathryn Hartt, the founder of acting studio Hartt & Soul Studio, agrees. She says that acting is all about characters working to achieve their objectives, and actors should use beats to “map out your objective shifts.”
When breaking a script down into beats, it’s all about identifying the moments of change. Actor Heidi Cox, who is also the co-founder of production company Dweeb Darlings, says: “I personally take a look at [the script] a few times and try to identify where I see a tone shift or a change in the rhythm of the scene. I even read it out loud to see if I hear anything different than when I read it to myself.”
Cox adds that sometimes she works with a coach in order to identify the beats in her material. “Another perspective and pair of eyes can be very helpful,” she says.
As a coach, Hartt says the key to identifying beats is marking the moments when characters shift their objectives. “If you achieve your objective, you need a new one. If you give up, you need a new one. If there is an interruption, you need a new objective,” she explains.
Root likes to think of beats in musical terms, especially when it comes to comedy. “Identifying beats in a comedy is slightly different [from drama], because, technically, everything should be building toward the punch lines—or, at the very least, the comedic payoff of whatever situation the characters are in,” Root says. “Comedy has a [rhythm] to it, and the changes in dynamics—that is, the ‘setups’—are the beats.”
If a script is a river, think of each beat as a stone thrown into the water that causes it to alter its course. They may vary in size and impact, but each one helps determine, in some small way, the path the water will take and where it will ultimately lead.
In general, a beat is any moment in a script or screenplay that changes the course of a character or scene, but of course there are multiple ways for that change to occur. Typically, those changes will fall into one of four categories: physical beats, tonal beats, topical beats, and tactical beats.
A physical beat occurs when something changes in the physical world of a scene. This can be the entrance or exit of a character, a shift in setting within a scene (for example, a transition from outdoors to indoors), or a change in the environment, such as rain. Each of these physical changes should prompt the characters to react to what’s happening around them physically—and each of those reactions is a physical beat.
Think of tonal beats as any time the temperature of the scene changes: the villain stops playing nice or the lying friend finally reveals the truth. Whenever the mood of a conversation shifts or the tension level rises or falls, that’s a tonal beat.
When you’re having a conversation, and someone changes the subject, you may alter what you were going to say in order to follow the new topic of conversation. The same is true of characters in a script. Whenever something occurs that causes the topic of conversation to shift—whether it’s a character intentionally changing the subject or a new piece of information that causes the characters to change their focus—that is a topical beat.
Have you ever been in an argument with someone who was disagreeing for the sake of disagreement, so you change your argument to the opposite point in order to manipulate them into agreeing with your original idea? The moment where you changed your argument is an example of a tactical beat. A tactical beat occurs whenever a character switches their strategy in order to achieve their objective.
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For an actor, it’s invaluable to understand the beats of your character. Doing so will help you bring your character to life as a believable, fully formed individual. Root says that understanding beats is not just beneficial but crucial. “It’s not about just stitching together moments you’ve prepared,” he explains. “It’s about seeing the trajectory of the scene. It’s paramount to understanding storytelling. A good story is never A to B—it’s A to Z with 24 letters in between. Those letters are the beats.”
According to Root, understanding storytelling is necessary for delivering a good performance. “An actor should not only understand their character…but an actor should understand what function their character plays in the overall story,” he says. “What is the purpose of your character in this story? Once you find that and marry it with what you know about the character, the performance falls into place.”
Cox agrees: “Our job as actors is to tell the story. Characters usually have an arc and/or an obstacle to try to overcome. I feel that beats help us identify the journey of the character navigating said obstacles.”
Hartt also believes that understanding beats helps actors connect with their audience. “You’ll also be much more entertaining, because the scene will keep surprising the audience as you shift," she says.
Hartt shares that she always marks beats in her scripts. “It helps make a simple visual effect to easily see where your transitions are,” she says.
Cox, on the other hand, marks beats in her scripts only for specific roles that could use the extra notes. “The beats and cues for theater and comedy, especially, can move so fast,” she says. “Sometimes comedy is very specific, so you need to be on the same page with the cast and director.”
Root believes that marking beats is especially helpful in the early stages. For him, the practice is beneficial when preparing to perform scripts by Shakespeare or other less colloquial writers. “If you’re doing Shakespeare, you absolutely have to mark up your script with the changes,” he advises. “The beats are highly subjective, as a general rule, so you need to have a consensus among the actors and the director about where the shift in the scene, if any, occurs. Otherwise, you’re all just speaking beautiful poetry and there is no narrative thrust to the story.”
How an actor marks the beats in their personal script is largely a matter of preference, and it can take any number of forms. What’s important is that you develop a consistent system of markings that will immediately remind you that a change has occurred.
“A lot of times when I’m working through a script, I will write ‘shift?’ or ‘notice?’ in the margin next to the line,” Root says, explaining his own process. “Just a reminder to myself that maybe the character clocked something in what the other character said or did that should be apparent in my reaction or how I behave the rest of the scene.”
Although his own lines and direction are, of course, important, Root reminds us that “ultimately whatever the other actor brings to the scene is what I have to ‘shift’ around or ‘notice.’ I just give myself a heads up that it feels like an inflection point.”
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Although analyzing beats requires some work on the front end, ultimately, understanding them should make the rehearsal process a little easier. “Beats orchestrate a scene,” Hartt says. “Once you know what is pushing your button to shift, it’s easy to allow yourself to stay in the moment with the other character. And once you are really going after your objective, the other person will trip you up—they are going after their objective, too. This causes struggle and conflict.”
For Cox, the rehearsal process actually helps her better identify and understand the beats in a script—although her specific approach varies based on what type of material she’ll be performing. “If it is theater, the rehearsal process really helps me find the beats and moments within the play,” she says. “And then adding the audience sometimes reveals even more.”
When rehearsing for a film role, Cox tries not to over-prepare in order to keep her scenes feeling fresh. Instead, she likes to work with her scene partners in order to determine the beats of the scene. “With camera work…I like to take an organic approach and see what, if anything, new comes up when we roll,” she says. “When you get there with your scene partner, you may find something new and exciting. I open myself up to possibilities with partners, the director, and the emotions that come up when actually in the moment of the scene.”
“It’s been said a billion times, but ultimately an actor’s job is auditioning,” Root reminds us. “And the most important thing to hone in on is [that the casting director] picked these sides for a reason. They usually showcase a ‘normal’ part of the character and then a ‘stressed’ part of the character. They want to see both—that’s why they chose those sides.”
Whatever catalyst causes a character to move from “normal” to “stressed” is a beat. If you can successfully pinpoint the beats of your character, you are much better equipped to land the role. “Beats are actually more important in auditioning than even the actual performance,” Root says, “because showing them that you understand the character’s function in the story will tell them that you are prepared to assume that role.”
In short, whether the role is large or small, for film or live theater, acting is all about understanding and embodying your character. Utilizing beats is one of the most beneficial skills to learn as an actor, and it can be instrumental in delivering a standout performance.