There are two kinds of “beats” in acting. We use “beat” as another way of saying “pause”, because it denotes a particular period of time, something on the order of a second. So if your director says, “take a couple of beats after that line”, it means keep your mouth shut for two seconds. A very good thing to do after delivering a punchline, for instance.
But the other, and more complicated, sort of “beat” is one that refers to a small group of lines in the play. A scene can be broken into a number of beats, which may be as short as a word or a sentence, and may be as long as a page or two. Generally speaking, they probably include an exchange between characters of anything from one to four lines apiece. (I haven’t done the math on this, I’m simply guessing based on where I typically draw the lines in my scripts.)
What delineates one beat from another? Either a change in emotion or a change in tactic. (Beats may also change when a character enters or leaves the scene or the topic of conversation changes, but those are pretty obvious.) Very often, both are involved, but at least one must change for a new beat to start. We haven’t talked about tactics yet; we will once we begin scene work, which we’ll do shortly.
In memory monologues, the change in beats is usually driven by an emotional change. In a regular monologue, both may be at work.
Understanding what the beats are in your scenes is critical to understanding the flow of the play, what your character is going for, and how to focus what you do to the audience’s greatest benefit. Your understanding may be instinctive; if so, you don’t need to do a lot of conscious work in this regard. You may come to your understanding by trial and error, and your process may seem haphazard, but all that matters is that you arrive at a conclusion that makes sense to the audience. Or you may take a more formal, conscious approach.
In the next post, I’m going to explain the conscious approach, but it doesn’t mean that you have to use it. As long as you arrive at the same destination, how you get there is up to you. But if you aren’t unwilling to use the conscious approach on some level, you may find it shortens the process for you or that it turns your mind in directions you might not otherwise go. I’m a very instinctive actress, but I go through the process at the start of each new play. I’m not sure that it does anything for me, but I am certain that it doesn’t hurt. At least, I’ve never found any visible wounds!
I suggest that no matter what your own process is, you try the conscious approach at least once so that you have a clear sense of the potential nuances of a scene or monologue. Acting is not a matter of driving down the freeway. If you treat it that way, watching it can be akin to driving through the flat farmland of western Oklahoma, where all that’s on the radio is the Pig Report. As actors, we want to take the winding backroads to our destination, which is always the more interesting, scenic route!