Acting is a collaborative process to say the least. On any given project the actor collaborates with the director, the crew, the designers, the other actors, and especially the writer. For the most, part an actor would be lost without the guidance and insight the writer provides with the script.
It is the actor’s responsibility to respect the words as written. Although it may be helpful when getting off book (memorizing lines), do not paraphrase your lines or ad lib during rehearsal or performance. Adding words and phrases like, “um”, and “ya know”, “I mean”, and “well” are all signs of an unprepared actor. If you find yourself using these phrases as a crutch, I recommend you study that part of your script in more detail. Often if you are not saying your lines verbatim it means you do not understand what it is you are trying to communicate.
The writer chooses each word, phrase, and sentence very carefully. There is a reason your character may say, “Excuse me?” instead of saying, “Huh?” or “What?” There is a reason the writer capitalizes certain words or uses italics. The use of punctuation is also very significant when it comes to establishing pace or rhythm. In my experience punctuation has always helped to guide me in terms of the delivery of my lines.
Another facet of the text to consider is what’s called a “beat.” A beat is a unit of dramatic action. Any given script is broken down into acts, then scenes, then beats, or units of action within that scene. I often compare beats of a scene to paragraphs of an article or a story. A beat has no specific length – it can last for two lines or two pages. It is essentially a given topic of action or discussion between characters.
Apparently the term “beat” came from a misinterpretation of a German director. The story goes that she was talking to her actors and wanted them to rehearse a specific bit. She used the word “bit” repeatedly and in her accent it sounded like “beat.” I’m not sure if that’s exactly how it happened but it makes sense. A beat is actually a bit of the story.
Here’s an example of a few different beats from a scene between Nick and George from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:
GEORGE: (Martha and Honey leave the room) (BEAT) So? What’ll it be?
NICK: Oh I don’t know…I’ll stick to bourbon I guess.
GEORGE: That what you were drinking over at Parnassus?
NICK: Over at…?
NICK: I don’t understand…
GEORGE: Skip it. One bourbon.
GEORGE: It’s just a private joke between li’l ol’ Martha and me.
(BEAT) So? So…you’re in the math department, eh?
NICK: No…uh, no.
GEORGE: Martha said you were. I think that’s what she said.
What made you decide to be a teacher?
NICK: Oh…well, the same things that…uh…motivated you, I imagine.
GEORGE: What were they?
GEORGE: I said what were they? What were the things that motivated me?
NICK: Well…I’m sure I don’t know.
GEORGE: You just finished saying that the things that motivated you were the same things that motivated me.
NICK: I said I imagined they were.
GEORGE: Oh. Did you? (BEAT) Well…You like it here?
NICK: Yes…it’s…it’s fine.
The first beat begins with, “So? What’ll it be?” the second beat with “So? So…you’re in the math department, eh?” and the third beat with “Well…you like it here?” All of these beats mark a change in the dramatic action. In this case George is driving the scene by frequently changing the subject, or making beat changes.
All of the beats in the example above happen to begin with questions but that’s not always the case. A new beat can begin with anything from a physical action to a word, a phrase, or a sentence. A beat is not necessarily a pause but it can be. The director may ask you to take a beat which is another way of saying take a pause. Also, a new beat doesn’t always occur at the beginning of a sentence or speech. It can be found mid sentence and sometimes even in the middle of a word, in the case of an interruption. A great director I worked with told me to mark your beat changes with a specific physical and vocal change. The way in which you make those changes is up to you; it’s your choice.
It is always very helpful to go through your script and mark where your beats take place. You may want to do this with your scene partner and your director if they are willing. Sometimes it is not always clear exactly where one beat ends and another begins. The more specific you are in marking your beats, the clearer your work will be.
Understanding the beats and beat changes will give you a clear vision of what each scene is about. Scenes are the links that create the chain. Every scene, just like every character, plays an integral part in creating the story. As a story teller you need to be acutely aware of the components of that story.
I hope you will have the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects in your career. Keep in mind that you may come across very bad writing from time to time. My first suggestion is to avoid working with bad material. If you recognize that the writing is not good, do not take the job. That being said, there may be times when you simply need the paycheck and will work with poor material. If this is the case be professional as usual and do the best job that you can.
Regardless of the caliber of the writing, having a general idea of the scene or the story is never enough. It is vital that you examine the text from every angle. Do your homework. Explore the writer’s choices, style, and ideas and allow them to influence and guide your work.
Thanks for reading. Good luck and keep going. I wish you nothing but success in everything you pursue.
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