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Questions & Comments

This is where we post interesting questions, answers and comments that you send to us via the English Theatre Contact Us page.

Read what your peers are asking and saying about English Theatre.

Question from Malcolm M. in Prince Edward Island

What differentiates a scene from an act? Is an act a time range, and a scene a scene change? Is there an allowable or upper-range time limit on scene changes between scenes and between acts? Can (or should) a one act play have many scenes?

Thank you in advance for your response.


Response from Janet Irwin, Outreach Coordinator, NAC English Theatre

Hi Malcolm,
This is an interesting question that goes back to Aristotle's Poetics. He divided plays into five equal beats (acts), but since then all bets are off. A play by Shakespeare, divided by him or his editors into 5 acts, may be played as 2 acts or 3 acts (divided by intermissions.)
Many modern plays divide into 2 acts (except of course for one act plays), and sometimes plays with more than 2 acts become essentially 2 acts by being divided by 1 intermission.
I would say that an act is a major division which comprises several smaller sections called scenes. Scenes tend to take place in one area or locale. Often an act finishes with some culmination of all the activity and complications and conflicts introduced during the action to this point (sort of a mini-climax, but not the grand climax). The climax of a two act play would tend to happen in the latter part of the second act, followed by some resolution or restoration of balance, or a pointing toward a new balance.
An act can encompass several locales. The central action of the play (main conflict) joins the locales. There is no time range or limit beyond the period of time that we can reasonable expect someone to sit still and watch and listen. It's a good idea to have the second act  (post intermission)  a bit shorter than the first half.
Scene changes are simply the time it takes to move from one scene to another. There may be actual scenic elements to shift, or possibly an actor walks into a new pool of light that indicates a different time and place. Scene changes should happen quickly, smoothly, so that the audience's attention isn't compromised.  
I hope this helps.

Jan Irwin