Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

1.4: The Actor Scene Breakdown

  • Page ID
    55841
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    What is a breakdown?

    The first task many technicians, designers and stage managers take on when starting work on a new show is a script breakdown. The breakdown is a scene by scene (and often page by page) analysis of the technical requirements of a script. The specific layout of a breakdown and the information it contains will vary from technician to technician depending on the person’s preferences and the needs of their position.

    Breakdowns are typically done in a grid format, with headings of information along the top, and the location in the script along the left side. Because of the format, many designers and technicians use a spreadsheet program (such as Microsoft’s Excel) to create the breakdown. As someone who started in the industry before computers were ubiquitous, I really appreciate the advantages of creating a breakdown on a computer. I find that every time I re-read the script or do any significant amount of work on the show, I am updating my breakdown. When I used to work on paper, this meant adding tiny notes, or post-its all over the original breakdown so that it became hard to read. With the computer, I can add additional lines (or columns) as needed. That said, I still regularly print out the breakdown, as I find a hard copy particularly useful while working.

    Note on Examples

    For this chapter, and much of the rest of the book, lam going to use the play "Box and Cox" by John Maddison Morton as an example. The play is a short (40 minute) three-character, one-act play from the 1840 s. Please see the accompanying text. As a one-act play with only one location, it does not have scenes designated. There are many full-length modern plays that also do not designate scenes. In cases such as those, the production team, led by the director, must determine where individual scenes are.

    The Actor/Scene Breakdown

    One of the first breakdowns many technicians create is an actor/scene breakdown. This breakdown charts who is on-stage for every page of the script. This knowledge assists many people do their jobs well.

    • The stage manager will use this scheduling rehearsals as they know who is needed when.
    • The costume designer will use it to estimate how much time there is for possible costume changes.
    • It helps the scenic designer determine how many actors a specific set must accommodate.
    • It allows the prop department to figure out when they will hand individual actors their props.
    BOX AND COX

    Act

    Scene

    Page

    Location

    Character

    Note

    Box

    Cox

    Mrs. B

    I

    i

    2

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    Description of set, hand mirror

    I

    i

    3

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    I

    i

    4

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    X

    Holds up a thin bolster, off stage voices

    I

    i

    5

    Box/Cox Flat

    x

    x

    He lights a candle, cook bacon

    I

    i

    6

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    x

    Cooks pork chop

    I

    i

    7

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    X

    I

    i

    8

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    X

    Eat roll

    I

    i

    9

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    x

    I

    i

    10

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    I

    i

    11

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    I

    i

    12

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    I

    i

    13

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    X

    I

    i

    14

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    Trick dice

    I

    i

    15

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    Trick coins

    I

    i

    16

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    X

    Prepared letter

    I

    i

    17

    Box/Cox Flat

    X

    X

    I

    i

    18

    Box/Cox Flat

    x

    X

    x

    Second letter

    I

    i

    19

    Box/Cox Flat

    x

    x

    x

    third letter

    I

    i

    20

    Box/Cox Flat

    x

    x

    x

    • It helps the back-stage staff determine how much time they will have between scenery, or costume changes, and the order of those changes so that they can plan efficiently.
    • It assists the sound designer to determine which mics need to be on when. Additionally if actors are sharing body mics, It allows the sound team to plot when the changes will happen.

    Before anyone can create a breakdown, they need to read the play from beginning to end. All plays are different, and technicians will have to modify the standard format based on the needs/requirements of their production. For example, in some plays (or in some productions), one actor may play multiple characters. In those cases, when laying out the characters in the breakdown, I like to place characters played by the same actor in adjacent columns so I can see when I need which character and I can see when I need each actor. By having the columns next to each other I also can reveal when the actor may be frantically changing costume (see chapter 8). For multi-set shows, it is important to see where each scene is taking place. For a single set show, that is not as important, and may be left out of the breakdown.

    The following instructions are for a generic play. To create this breakdown, begin by putting the title of the play at the top of a spreadsheet page (or page of graph paper). Create the following columns: Act, Scene, Page, Location. Additional columns are needed for each character. The order of the character columns should be considered to make it most useful for the technician making the list. The final column should be headed “notes.” In many ways the notes column can be the most important. In this column you list anything that you think will affect your job that does not appear in any other column. If you find that you have many listings that seem to be of a similar category, you should go back and add a column with that heading.

    Once the columns are made, you will start going through the script page by page, and filling in the information. If a character is on stage, simply mark an X in the correct box. If you find that a scene begins somewhere other than the top of the page, you should create a new line because different scenes will be treated differently, even if they are on the same page. Below is my initial breakdown for “Box and Cox.”

    Initial Actor Scene Breakdown

    After looking at the breakdown, I notice that the entire play is one act, one scene, and in one location. Since it is just one location, that column isn’t needed and can be deleted as it doesn’t really supply any useful information. The fact that it is entirely in one act, and very short (about 40 minutes) means that the production will be unlikely to add an intermission, so that column could be deleted. The fact that it is only one scene is actually problematic. It is easier to discuss and rehearse a play in smaller chunks. Those chunks are usually 5 to 10 minutes in length. The usual term for those chunks in scenes. Many production teams will break the play up into scenes differently than the playwright. A particularly long scene (as in this play) may be broken into multiple scenes. Similarly, two very short scenes that are back to back that use the same characters may be “combined” into one scene for rehearsal purposes. This is a matter for the production team, which consists of the stage manager, director, technical director and designers, to make together.

    Suddenly we notice that our initial breakdown needs to be edited and updated. This is very common, and precisely why I like working on a computer where changes and edits are easy to do. For this example, we will delete the Act and location columns. We will also examine the script and the breakdown to try to break the play into 3-6 scenes for rehearsal purposes. The revised version is below.

    Revised Actor Scene Breakdown

    BOX AND COX

    Scene

    Page

    Character

    Note

    Box

    Cox

    Mrs. B

    i

    2

    X

    X

    Description of set, hand mirror

    i

    3

    X

    X

    i

    4

    X

    X

    Holds up a thin bolster, off stage voices

    ii

    4

    X

    X

    NEW SCENE: Box Enters

    ii

    5

    x

    x

    He lights a candle, cook bacon

    iii

    6

    X

    X

    NEW SCENE: Cox Enters

    iii

    6

    X

    x

    Cooks pork chop

    iii

    7

    X

    X

    X

    iii

    8

    X

    X

    X

    Eat roll

    iii

    9

    X

    x

    iii

    10

    X

    X

    iii

    11

    X

    X

    iii

    12

    X

    X

    iv

    13

    X

    X

    NEW SCENE: Mrs. B. Enters

    iv

    13

    X

    X

    X

    iv

    14

    X

    X

    Trick dice

    iv

    15

    X

    X

    Trick coins

    iv

    16

    X

    X

    X

    Prepared letter

    iv

    17

    X

    X

    iv

    18

    x

    X

    x

    Second letter

    iv

    19

    x

    x

    x

    Third letter

    iv

    20

    x

    x

    x

    As you can see, the production team ended up breaking the play into 4 scenes for rehearsals. Even though scenes iii & iv required the same actors, they felt that 14 pages of script was too long to be considered a single block, and that there was a logic to where they separated them. Another option would have been to break the play into 5 scenes, by splitting scene iii either when Mrs. B enters or exits. Decisions in the matter must be left up to the best judgement of the production team.

    Spotting Problems

    While there are many useful purposes for this breakdown, one of the biggest things it should do is bring problems and challenges to the attention of the technical staff as soon as possible. Costume and set changes tend to be easily noted from the breakdown, however in the example play, there are none. We do notice in the break down that the actors cook bacon and pork chops on stage as well as eating a bun. Food props, and cooking can be very challenging, and should be discussed early on by the technical staff involved. We also have trick dice and trick coins that may need to be considered depending on the size of the theatre. Off-stage voices will have to be considered by the sound department. Since all the designers and lead technicians will perform a breakdown, any potential problems should be spotted.

    Other Ways to Organize a Breakdown

    Musicals, while often broken into scenes, often merit special consideration. Additional requirements for a moment may be brought about due to a song or dance section. Often, when breaking down a musical, I treat a song (or dance) as its own scene. It will have additional special rehearsals (music/choreography) and may involve additional performers not specifically listed in the script. Sometimes a director or choreographer will add additional performers for a dance, or to enhance the vocal qualities of a song. Sometimes these performers are not on stage but are singing from off-stage. They are still needed for rehearsals, and if they are singing off stage, it means they cannot also be doing a costume change or appearing on-stage.

    Some plays, especially Elizabethan plays (like those by William Shakespeare), and large scale musicals will have many small, one-scene roles. While a high school or a college may cast a unique and individual actor for each role, professional companies often try to use as few actors as possible. This means that a small one-scene role in the first scene, may be played by the same actor who plays a different one scene role in the third scene. Sometimes a director will try to assign the actors to the multiple roles so that some artistic statement is made to the audience. For example, in the musical “Little Me” the leading lady has a series of husbands and boyfriends throughout the show. Traditionally, one actor plays all of the men in her life. In this case the breakdown will allow a director and production team see if this symbolic double casting is possible. Sometimes it is merely a matter of filling all the small roles with as few people as possible to make the budget work. Again, the breakdown will allow this doubling to be determined.

    Follow this link to view a breakdown for William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In addition to a simple X to notate if a character is on stage, the person who did this breakdown noted every time a character left of entered the state.

    Additional Materials


    1.4: The Actor Scene Breakdown is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christopher R Boltz.

    • Was this article helpful?