"The organically occurring beat is often difficult to recognize because of its natural camouflage and subconscious automation."
The "beat" is one of the most common words in the theatrical vernacular, unsurprisingly so, because it can mean so many different things. The truth of the matter is that directors, playwrights, and actors all use beats for slightly different purposes. That can make it rather a dangerous word too. So this week, I present to you my Field Guide to Theatrical Beats, compiled from personal experiences, conversations, and classes I have taken.
1. The Playwright's Beat
When reading a play, it is not uncommon for lines of dialogue to be broken up with the stage direction: "Beat." This generally, though not always, is more about tempo and pacing than anything else. From personal experience, when I write a beat in a script it's because I imagine a pause or minor shift that needs time to be acknowledged. Though it might coincide with an actor beat or a director beat, this is probably more by coincidence than by design. That's not always true of course, and there may be playwrights who try to write beats as if they were actor beats, but the reason that's not a particularly reliable approach is that actor beats are inherently part of the actor's text-work. It defeats the nature of theatrical collaboration if the playwright tries to do the actor's work for him. That being said, a beat in the script may be a signpost to an actor - what the actor does with it is out of the playwright's hands.
2. The Actor's Beat
Even within the category of "Acting," I have been taught multiple conflicting definitions of the word "beat." At its core though, the actor's beat is typically significant as marking a change in objective. This would be great, except that there are also so many different types of objectives. Characters typically have super-objectives that represent conceptual or thematic life-goals that fit within the play's thematic spine. Branching out from there with increasing specificity are act objectives, scene objectives, and beat objectives. The best way I've heard beat objectives distinguished is as follows: a beat objective is an objective to elicit a specific and immediate response from another character in the scene. Thus, tactics are defined as variant approaches or strategies to elicit that one reaction, and occur within a beat. Another good indicator of a beat change is whenever significant information is revealed that forces every character on stage to adjust their objective accordingly.
3. The Director's Beat
Typically, a director's beat has the broadest textual span of any of the three, for while a playwright's beat is a rhythmic blip and an actor's beat is an objective-oriented selection of dialogue, a director's beat comprises a recognizable movement within the story of the play that has more to do with stage-picture and story functionality than with character minutiae. A director looks at beats as a way of breaking up a scene into the major things that happen, which does not necessarily coincide with the rhythm of the playwright or the beat-objectives of the actors. One director beat might be: "the argument escalates to physical violence," a progression which probably comprises several actor beats. The director's beat is useful in terms of organizing and visualizing the most important moments of the story so that all the targets are hit along the way. It is the actor's job to fill those beats with even more exacting shifts - and it would be an ill-advised waste of a director's time to try and direct each actor's beat. The director is the guardian of the story as a whole, and as such must have a wider focus integrating design, major character arcs, and important "events" in the staging.
Thus concludes my field guide. You'll undoubtedly find variations on these definitions wherever you go, but knowing the variations exist will make you better prepared to interpret them along the way. Happy Friday, and may the beats be ever in your favor!