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Finding Truth in Stage Acting vs. On-Camera Acting

Finding Truth in Stage Acting vs. On-Camera Acting

I have been lucky enough in my years of teaching to coach many talented stage and film actors. It’s such a joy to see a trained stage actor open up in front of a camera, just as it is to see a fine TV/film actor connect his gifts out to an audience of 500. 

There are of course, differences in the delivery of a film/TV performance or audition and a stage performance or audition, but the differences are technical and not as hard as some people make them out to be. 

Most actors, whether they realize it or not, are trained for the stage. All of the famous methods and techniques were designed for the stage, not the camera. These methods carry with them certain assumptions. For example, most methods presume a long rehearsal time that gives the actor a chance to explore the text and the character deeply with the help of a supportive director. 

This, of course, falls completely apart if you’re working in TV/film, where there is sometimes no rehearsal and oftentimes the director doesn’t know your name. 

Actors who recognize the difference are able to immediately adapt to the rigors of film by finding the most compelling intersection of themselves and the character, and are able to call up the right qualities whenever action is called. They don’t need tons of rehearsal, they’ve done the work themselves and are ready at a moment’s notice to connect and shine. 

Good actors are good actors no matter what the form. People like Bryan Cranston, Kristin Chenoweth, Christine Baranski, Nathan Lane, Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, among many others, shift effortlessly between the stage and screen. Their talent and work ethic doesn’t change; they simply make the technical tweaks necessary to make their work appropriate to whatever medium they’re working in.

I’ve heard many stage actors complain that in TV/film they don’t get to use their entire instrument when creating a character. Actors like those listed above know the specific ins and outs of their instrument so intimately and are so intelligent about the needs of the different medium that they know exactly what parts of their instrument they need and what parts they don’t to make a performance sing in film and on stage.

They know that the stage is more about creation, where as TV and film are more about expression. 

On stage you have the opportunity for much more external business and your body and voice play a big part in who your character is. But in TV/film, where stillness is at a premium, you need to look within and find the qualities of yours that connect most powerfully with the words on the page. And when it’s go time, you need to be able to just talk and listen with a minimum of movement, relying on the honesty of your decisions to shine through from behind your eyes. 

And while relative stillness is the norm in on-camera acting, the great ones know that their bodies are still in play. They may not be able to reveal key components of the character’s personality by the way they “strut and fret” across the stage, but they know that every emotion needs to have been registered and felt in the body so that they aren’t stiff and rigid. They know that being alive with an electric stillness will add energy and life to the character even with next to no movement. 

The truly talented and versatile actor doesn’t get caught in the irritating and just plain wrong mindset of “stage acting is bigger, film acting is smaller.” When I hear students say this I cringe, knowing that small always translates to dullness. 

Whether you are putting together an audition or performance for the stage or an audition or performance for film, you are seeking your truth for that character. You may explore the external a bit more for the stage and the internal more for film, but truth is always the goal. That doesn’t change. 

The difference is that you go shopping down different aisles to find the expression of the truth that most suits the medium in which you are auditioning/performing.

Speaking of “big and small,” I didn’t see many small choices from Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad,” for instance. I saw hugely risky choices that worked for the camera because they were so intensely personal and connected to him. 

Your choices for the camera are just as big as for the stage. If they’re not, you’re not going to connect to the other characters or to the camera with any real intensity and life. As a matter of fact, the stronger the choice, the less you have to do. The honesty and power of the choice resonates in your stillness, and needs no physical help or punctuation to be effective. 

The difference in the mediums isn’t one of big versus small; it’s the difference of where you look for and discover your truth and the way in which that truth is expressed.

Bottom line is either you are a good actor or you’re not. You need to be in complete command of your talent, training, and artistry so that you can make the necessary genre adjustments without risk of losing your strength or your center. If you can do that, greatness in every medium is in your future.

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Craig Wallace is an acting teacher and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Wallace’s full bio!


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