We’ve heard of actors making the switch from stage to screen or vice versa. The ability to act is crucial for both; yet stage and screen are very different. Here, we look at four key differences in performing for stage and screen.
On stage, your surroundings remain the same for the duration of the performance. You look out towards an audience that is physically present before you. It is real in the sense that you are interacting with people as you would do every day. As familiar as that might seem, it can also be daunting. You cannot undo mistakes that you make; you just have to go with it. You also have to ensure you don’t get distracted.
When working with film, the camera is your main audience, and this audience isn’t as unpredictable and (potentially) distracting as a stage audience. What’s real about film is your surroundings that change with every scene, making it easier to immerse yourself physically in the scene.
In film, scenes aren’t filmed in order. As such, it can be difficult to fully understand what you’re doing and to get into the moment without going through all the events leading up to that moment. There are fewer (if any) rehearsals when preparing for a film shoot. Film actors will need to learn to adapt quickly to situations, to get themselves on track in a short span of time or risk countless retakes.
In contrast, theatre actors rehearse a lot before their final performance. They have time to familiarise themselves with their characters and scenes, although they also have to memorise entire scripts instead of the scenes for the day.
Despite these differences, both roles require actors to do similar preparation to understand their characters through research and self-searching before they can portray them well.
D. W. Griffith, the “Inventor of Hollywood”, observed that stage actors project emotion and character to their audience while film actors embody and perform their emotions in as true and believable a way as possible. Because theatre audiences are seated some distance away from the performers, there is a need to amplify actions and project voices. You need to think ‘big’. In film, cameras and microphones pick up every twitch of an eyelid and the tremor in a voice. Actors need to be natural or risk looking like they’re overacting.
In theatre, audiences possibly come in knowing the script. This is especially true for re-stagings and for famous works, like Shakespeare. In such cases, it is inevitable that the audience will compare actors with others who have played the same role before. Deviating from the script is fraught with risk, as the audience will know and may not like it much. The actor also has to be the character that the audience expects him or her to be, and not deviate too much from common understandings of the character. This leaves the actor with little room to experiment. On the plus side, actors already have their work cut out for them, and all they have to do is to make it happen.
In film, the actor is usually the first person to play that character, so s/he has the leeway to experiment with the role. Yet this also means that the responsibility of fleshing out the character believably falls solely on that actor’s shoulders – there is no other reference point. Of course, this is not unique to film. Actors in theatre works that are being staged for the first time face this situation as well.