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An act is a division or unit of a theatre work, including a play, film, opera, and musical theatre. The term can either refer to a conscious division placed within a work by a playwright (usually itself made up of multiple scenes) or refer to a unit of analysis for dividing a dramatic work into sequences. The former use of the term may or may not align with the latter.
Though there are no limits to the number of acts which might exist within a dramatic work, the most common structures are the three act structure and five act structure. Both of these are derived from different interpretations of Aristotle's The Poetics in which he stresses the primacy of plot over character and 'an orderly arrangement of parts'.
The work of William Shakespeare, for example, generally adheres to a five act structure whereas contemporary theatre, in line with screenwriting and novel forms, tends towards a three act structure.
Acts and scenes
An act is a part of a play defined by elements such as rising action, climax and resolution. A scene is a part of an act defined with the changing of characters.
To be more specific, the elements that create the plot of a play or any story, and divide a play into acts include the exposition, which give information, setting up the rest of the story. Another is the inciting incident, which starts all of the action that will follow. Going along with the inciting incident, the major dramatic question is formed; this holds the rest of the play. The majority of the play is made up of complications. These are the things that change the action. These complications lead up to the crisis, this is the turning point. Most of the time, at this point, the major dramatic question has been answered. Finally, there is the resolution. This is the end of the play where everything comes together and the situation has been resolved. This leaves the audience satisfied with the play as a whole. These more specific elements of plot in a play are the main things used to divide a play up into acts and sometimes 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. The end of an act often coincides with one or more characters making an important decision, else having an important decision to make. A decision which has a profound impact on the story being told.
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.
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" because it was 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 that type of structure is the most used.
In Act I the conflict of the story is discovered. In this act, the exposition, the introduction of the protagonist, and other characters that the protagonist meets take place, as well as the dramatic premise and inciting incident (the incident that sets the events of the story in motion) occurs approximately halfway through the first act.
At this point, the main character encounters an obstacle that prevents the character from achieving his or her dramatic need. This is known as the complication. The main character reaches his or her lowest point and seems farthest from fulfilling the dramatic need or objective and it seems like there is no longer any way that the protagonist can succeed.
Other numbers of acts
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).
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.
- As part of a television program, each individual act can be separated by commercials.
- In film, a number of scenes grouped together bring to an audiovisual work to life.
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- Quinn, Shelley Fenno (Spring 1993). "How to write a Noh play - Zeami's Sandō". Monumenta Nipponica. 48 (1): 58–62. JSTOR 2385466.