AS AN ACTOR, you use many tools to create a performance, including script analysis. One important aspect of script analysis is discovering and using beats to shape each scene’s rhythm.

Plays are typically divided into large units called acts. Those acts are often divided into smaller sections, or scenes. In turn, scenes are further divided into moment-by-moment acting units called beats.

A beat is the smallest unit of action in a play. It contains a distinct beginning, middle, and end. In a beat, characters pursue a simple objective. However, unlike acts or scenes, beats aren’t delineated by the author. You won’t hear anyone refer to the famous line “To sleep, perchance to dream” as Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, Beat 3, because beats are discoveries made by actors or directors. This work is called beat analysis.

To find beats, you’ll need to create a map, and the best way to do that is to understand what causes a beat to change. As a rule, beats shift when a character’s motivation or routine changes. As you read the text, ask yourself, “Did the mood of the scene just change?” If the answer is yes, you have probably discovered a beat.


Most beats can be grouped into three categories. First, beats change when any character enters or exits a scene. Think about your typical high school theatre classroom. You’re sitting in class, about to warm up with a theatre game, when the door opens and your school principal enters the room. Or you’re sitting in chemistry class. Your teacher assigns you to balance a chemical equation written on the board, then steps out. Does the mood in the room change? The answer to both scenarios is a resounding yes. You and your classmates react to new people who have entered in or exited from your world. The same thing happens to characters in a play. Scenes involving the entrance or exit of a character are referred to as “French scenes” and are the easiest beats to find.

A second type of beat change occurs when other situations shift. Characters change the topic of conversation, discover something new, or the outside world intrudes upon action onstage. Imagine you and your friend are sitting in the school cafeteria. Your friend is quietly stirring their food around on their tray but not really eating. You suddenly remember they auditioned for the school play yesterday, so you ask how the audition went. Your friend stares at the food and exclaims, “Can you believe the stuff they serve us here? I should start bringing my lunch!” How do you think that audition went?

Characters steer conversations, and with each turn of the wheel, they drive the vehicle in a new direction: a new beat. The outside world also may impact the situation onstage. In The Diary of Anne Frank, the families in the annex listen for bells from the nearby church to signal when it’s safe for them to move and speak. This outside intrusion affects the mood onstage and signifies a beat change.

Finally, beats change when characters change the tactics used to achieve an objective. Consider the following scene.

A: Can I borrow five dollars?
B: No.
A: Why? I have done so many things for you, and you won’t let me borrow five dollars?
B: I’m sorry, but no.
A: I will pay you back tomorrow or the next day. I just really need five dollars today. 
B: I can’t help you. 
A: Look, I am going to be honest with you. I owe Pat five dollars today, and you know Pat’s temper. Can you please help me?
B: I’m sorry you’re in this situation, but I can’t get involved. 

What’s the objective? Character A needs five dollars from character B. Examine closely the differing tactics character A uses to achieve that objective: causing guilt, pressuring, begging, and threatening. These can be the trickiest beats to discover because characters in plays aren’t often as obvious about their tactic shifts as the example above demonstrates.

Scene beats marked in a script for Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Scene beats marked in a script for Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.


Now that you know how to find beat changes, you need to know how to mark them in your script. First, grab your pencil. Read through your script and pause when you feel you have found a beat change. You are looking for the last line of one beat and the first line of the new beat. Now mark the beat shift with a line from the left edge of the script all the way across to the right edge. Be sure the line goes from edge to edge. You want beats to be easily seen in your script during rehearsals. An easy way to determine if there is a beat shift is to read the last line of one beat and the first line of the new beat and ask, “Is this new line directly connected to the previous line? Does this new line change the mood of the scene?”

In the example above, “Give me five dollars or else!” clearly changes the mood of the scene. You should mark the beat directly between the two characters’ lines. One character will end a beat, and the next character will begin a new beat.

Occasionally a beat may change during one character’s line instead of between two characters’ lines. Consider the following example.

A: No, I think I’ll decline the offer. (Walks across room and looks out a window.) Wait. Tell them I will take it. I will be there on Monday.

In this example, the character changes the beat in the middle of the line, and you would mark the beat differently. Take your pencil and mark the line under the first sentence then mark it straight up through the stage direction about walking and continue to mark it over the second half of the text. The same character will end one beat then begin the new beat.


The same scene marked above from the original 1985 production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

The same scene marked above from the original 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

You have your script marked with your beats and now you’re at rehearsal. It is time to put your beats into action onstage. A simple rule of thumb for acting beats: New Beat = New Energy. Remember, beats identify the rhythm of the scene. As the scene shifts, so too must the rhythm. A scene may start slow and steadily build pace with each beat change. The intensity may alter with a beat change as a scene progresses from calm to chaos.

A simple way to discover new energy with a beat change is to change the volume. When you come in with more volume than your scene partner, you “top” their energy, so this technique is often called topping. Just remember you cannot repeat the same beat changing technique with every new beat. Try topping too many times in succession, and you and your scene partner will be shouting every line until you lose your voice. Mix it up. Try raising the intensity while lowering your volume to an almost whisper. Use a pause to set your new beat apart. Or punctuate a beat change with a physical gesture.

Don’t limit your creativity with beat changes. Try something new and unexpected to see how it affects the scene. Because you have marked your beats in the script, you can easily see when you begin a new beat. You can monitor the ending energy of your scene partner and create a new energy with the new beat.

Finally, it’s important to remember that beats are not perfect delineations like acts and scenes. When an author writes, “End of Act 1,” there isn’t debate. The act is over. You and your director will work together to discover and debate the multitude of beats in your play. That’s why you mark beats in pencil. As rehearsal progresses, you may decide that one beat is unnecessarily slowing the energy of the scene. Erase that beat mark in your script and adjust your acting choices accordingly.

Beat analysis is like any other instrument in your acting toolkit, like defining objectives and character analysis. Your work in charting the rhythmic melody of your scene will create convincing moment-to-moment acting on stage.

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