From the Director, John Tomlinson
In theatre vocabulary you will find two kinds of beats. One is pretty simple, while the other is a bit more complex. An actor may hear two common usages: you hear the phrase “take a beat,” or you hear there is a “beat change.” These terms are not interchangeable. In this article, we intend to have a look at both, and understand which is which..
The first kind of beat is synonymous with a pause. A director might tell an actor take a beat before speaking. Typically this might be used as a moment to reflect internally. Or perhaps it is time to take in an action or speech by another character. At any rate, it means basically the one simple thing, take a short pause, take it all in, and then move on with the action.
The idea of a beat change exists within the theory of modern acting, so explaining it involves several concepts. To understand that beat change, we need to understand objectives, intentions, and tactics as well. We will take a brief look at all of these, before we come back to a beat change, and how it is used.
In the theory of modern acting, it is commonly accepted that every character has an objective, for some goal that they wish to achieve. People refer to objectives as an intention, a character’s motivation, their goal, and probably many other things. It all boils down to the characters core, human desire for fulfillment. It is a style of acting, or way for performers to connect with the material, that is based on the psychology of characters and, what they have in common with the rest of us in real life.
The actor’s job includes using the script, research, and their own knowledge to determine the objectives and intentions of the character. We talk about a character’s super objective, and what they want throughout the entire play. Next we look at a character’s objective or intention within a given scene. How does that intention within their super objective?
The system, known as Psychological Realism, helps actors give a believable sense of character to the audience. So designing and creating a role based on your understanding of a characters psychology makes sense. It is important that every action suits the audience’s perception of what is believable. Therefore an actor must study well not only the character, and what makes sense psychologically. Actors also must know a little about audience perceptions and expectations.
It’s a highly developed skill to develop character thoroughly to its potential.
One funny thing occurs when basing a role on what a character wants, and it often confuses actors. Honestly, most of the time on stage characters do not get what they want. As in other stories, a play’s characters face a series of obstacles, people or events, or even physical limitations that keep them from getting what they want. A character’s intention can be thwarted several times throughout a play.
This is where tactics come to play and beat changes are related to tactics. When a character is met with an obstacle, quitting is not the typical response. Characters typically press on. But they don’t just do the same thing. In line with their intention, characters change their tactics in order to persuade or change the mind of the character presenting an obstacle. This change of tactics is known as a beat change.
Here’s an example. You have decided your character is motivated by attention. The other characters in a scene want an answer from you. This is great! They are paying attention. So you are happy to answer. But then they have what they want so they stop paying attention. What can you do to get their attention back? Dance? Sing? Change your story? Make up a new story? That is when your tactic changes. And that moment of change is a beat change.
Beat changes keep acting fresh and in the moment. If a character, or actor, just tries the same thing over and over it becomes repetitive. Look for the changes in the script that signal a beat change and change your tactics accordingly. Signals for a beat change include a change in mood, emotion, or topic. Use these moments to change your approach, and this will help bring your character to life!