Act (drama)  

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An act is a division or unit of a drama. The number of acts in a production can range from one to five or more, depending on how a writer structures the outline of the story. The length of time for an act to be performed usually ranges from 30 to 90 minutes, but may be as few as 10.

The term can also be used for major sections of other entertainment, such as film, television, variety shows, music hall, and cabaret.


Acts and scenes

The Roman theatre was the first to divide plays into a number of acts separated by intervals. Acts may be further divided into scenes; in classical theater each regrouping between entrances and exits of actors is a scene, while later use describes a change of setting.

Modern plays often have only one level of structure, which can be referred to as either scenes or acts at the whim of the writer; and some writers dispense with firm divisions entirely. Successive scenes are normally separated from each other in either time or place; but the division between acts is more to do with the overall dramatic structure of the piece.

Many operettas and most musicals are divided into just two acts, so in practice the intermission is seen as dividing them, and the word "act" comes to be used for the two halves of a show whether or not the script divides it into acts.

Three-act play

In a three-act play, each act usually has a different tone to it. The most commonly used, but not always, is the first act having a lot of introductory elements, the second act can usually be the darkest with the antagonists having a greater encompass, while the third act is the resolution and the protagonists prevailing. There is an age-old saying that "the second act is the best", owing to the fact of it being in between a starting and ending act and thus being able to delve deeper into more of the meat of the story since it does not need to have as prominent introductory or resolutive portions. Of course this is not always so since a third act or even a first act can have the common second act characteristics, but the most used is that type of structure.

Act one

Act I comprises the first quarter of the screenplay (e.g., for a two-hour movie, Act I would last approximately 30 minutes). In this act, the exposition takes place and includes the introduction of the protagonist, the dramatic premise, and the dramatic situation. The inciting Incident (the incident that sets the events of the story in motion) occurs approximately halfway through the first act.

Act two

Act II comprises the next two quarters of the film. The main character encounters an obstacle that prevents the character from achieving his or her dramatic need, approximately halfway through the film. The main character reaches his or her lowest point and seems farthest from fulfilling the dramatic need or objective.

Act three

Act III comprises the final quarter of the film. The climax occurs as well as the dénouement, a brief period of calm at the end of a film where a state of equilibrium returns.

Other numbers of acts

Five-act play

Until the 18th century, most plays were divided into five acts. This format is known as the five-act play, and was famously analyzed by Gustav Freytag in Die Technik des Dramas (Dramatic techniques). The five acts played specific functions in the overall structure of the play; but in performance there was not necessarily any clear separation between them.

A similar five-part structure is also used in traditional Japanese Noh drama, particularly by Zeami Motokiyo. Zeami, in his work "Sandō" (The Three Paths), originally described a five-part (five dan) Noh play as the ideal form. It begins slowly and auspiciously in the first part (jo), building up the drama and tension in the second, third, and fourth parts (ha), with the greatest climax in the third dan, and rapidly concluding with a return to peace and auspiciousness in the fifth dan (kyū).

One-act play

A one-act play is a short drama that consists of only one act; the phrase is not used to describe a full-length play that does not utilise act-divisions. Unlike other plays which usually are published one play per book, one-act plays are often published in anthologies or collections.

Other media

  • As part of a television program, each individual act can be separated by commercials.
  • In film, each individual act is usually separated with a break in the action or plot development. Traditionally, this is accomplished with a change in music from whatever is standard for the film to something more light.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Act (drama)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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