Stage acting is a style of performance in which a performer plies their craft on a stage, in front of a live audience, in a play, musical, or opera. Stage acting is typically one of the first acting styles a budding actor will study, but it’s one of the hardest to master. A truly competent stage actor requires deft technical skill as well as the ability to convey a vast array of emotions in a short space of time. Above all, stage actors require the ability to both connect with, and dazzle, an audience in real-time.
Unlike movies or television shows, a successful play—whether classic or contemporary—may be performed countless times all over the world, brought to life on stage in a multitude of productions by a wide variety of acting companies. Individual productions of a play can have different directors with unique visions. MFA students performing “The Music Man” at Yale Drama School, for example, are going to look and sound different than the cast of the Broadway revival. A performance of “As You Like It” at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is not going to be identical to a regional production in Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This is not to say that one is inherently better than the other, because the beauty of live theater is that no two performances are exactly alike.
While there is some overlap, acting on stage generally requires a different skill set than acting for the screen.
A stage actor needs to convincingly communicate emotions to each and every member of their audience, including those situated far from the stage. Therefore, the actor needs to be louder and more expressive with their performance than if they were acting on camera. Screen acting, where actors’ most expressive emotional beats are frequently conveyed in close-up, generally requires far less to sell more. “Stage training can get us into a habit of always externalizing and physically expressing what we normally feel just inside so that the audience can see and perceive how we’re feeling and what we’re thinking,” says Shaan Sharma, co-founder of the Westside On-Camera Acting Studio. “I think Damian Lewis said it well: ‘Onstage, you have to in some small nuanced way give a demonstration of what you’re thinking so that the people at the back can see it, whereas on camera you just quite literally have to think it.’”
Consider Mia Goth’s show-stopping monologue in the 2022 film “Pearl.” Director Ti West holds the camera on Goth for close to ten minutes, and Goth holds the viewer’s attention for every minute of it, expressing a roller coaster of emotions with hardly any movement at all. On stage, a monologue of that caliber would be better delivered in a more orotund fashion, so the emotional beats are conveyed to everyone—from those in the front of the orchestra to the people at the back of the balcony.
During an appearance on “Conan,” actor Timothy Olyphant explained it in comprehensive (and hilarious) fashion.
On stage, a cast performs scenes linearly, in the same order as they’re arranged in the script. This is seldom the case for film and television projects, where producers and directors plan their shooting schedules around weather, locations, and budgets.
Because their art happens live in front of an audience, stage actors have to be both flexible and improvisational, as they may have to deal with mistakes and errors on the fly, such as a forgotten or misplaced prop. They also need to be prepared to change costumes over and over in a short space of time, whereas screen actors have much more time to change costumes—or locate a missing prop—between takes.
More authority of your performance
“In film and on TV, actors don’t create their own performances, editors and directors do. That’s one major difference between stage and screen acting,” notes Rob Adler, acting coach and founder of AdlerImprov Studio. “In the rehearsal process for the theater, it is not uncommon for an actor who is in control of their performance to sense something has gone ‘wrong,’ stop, go back, and fix it to get it ‘right.’ On a film set that’s someone else’s job. Actors don’t call cut.... In transitioning from stage to screen, actors need to practice letting go of control.”
Preparation and adjustments
Stage actors memorize all of their lines before the curtain rises, whereas screen actors have a lot more leeway. They still need to learn their lines, but they can refer to the script between takes. Additionally, depending on the script, stage acting typically requires strict adherence to the dialogue in the script, whereas screen acting may allow for improvisation, last-minute script changes, on-set rewrites, alternative line readings in multiple takes, or all of the above. A screenwriter will often (if not always) be standing by to facilitate any on-the-fly alterations to the text. While this could technically be done for a play too, the audience could be very confused. In stage performances, while a play’s dialogue cannot be altered without compromising the integrity of the text, a director may manipulate the context of the words if they are hoping to create new emphasis or meaning.
“Peter Pan Goes Wrong” Credit: Jeremy Daniels
In addition to an abundance of confidence, a stage actor needs to have:
- A good memory: There’s no calling “cut” once the curtain goes up, so the ability to memorize your lines to a T is a must.
- Excellent diction: Every line you say on stage must be clear and understandable for the audience; familiarize yourself with diction exercises to clear up your speech.
- A loud voice: Even with flawless diction, you still need to make sure the back row can hear what you’re saying; learning how to project your voice is vital to becoming a stage actor.
- Physicality: In addition to keeping yourself in shape for multiple shows a week, the way you use your body is an extension of projecting the story to an audience. Stage actors should consider body and movement-based methods like the Alexander Technique and Laban Movement Analysis.
- Improvisation: Although the vast majority of plays are scripted and not improvised, a good stage actor will know how to ad-lib and improvise in a pinch, should anything go awry.
In addition to technical skills, stage actors also need to be reliable and punctual, as well as willing to work non-traditional hours. And, of course, one of the most important skills required to be a stage actor is the ability to take direction and absorb constructive criticism.
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Stage directions are notes in a script that provide instructions on how to behave in a scene, as well as what the actor should be doing and where on the stage they should be situated. Even though directors will further dictate blocking, stage directions are a necessary element of any script that is written for the stage, as they provide a framework for the actors. They can establish the atmosphere and emotional tone of a scene, which helps actors prepare appropriately for their roles.
Here's an example of detailed stage directions from George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 play “Arms and the Man”:
RAINA: (laughing and sitting down again). Yes, I was only a prosaic little coward. Oh, to think that it was all true—that Sergius is just as splendid and noble as he looks—that the world is really a glorious world for women who can see its glory and men who can act its romance! What happiness! what unspeakable fulfillment! Ah!
(She throws herself on her knees beside her mother and flings her arms passionately around her. They are interrupted by the entry of Louka, a handsome, proud girl in a pretty Bulgarian peasant’s dress with a double apron, so defiant that her servility to Raina is almost insolent. She is afraid of Catherine, but even with her goes as far as she dares. She is just now excited like the others, but she has no sympathy for Raina’s raptures and looks contemptuously at the ecstasies of the two before she addresses them.)
By including words like “insolent” and “afraid,” Shaw is providing an emotional roadmap for the actors to follow, ensuring that his vision can be brought to life on stage.
“Bad Cinderella” Credit: Matthew Murphy
Auditions help producers and directors decide who they want to cast in their productions. For an actor, auditions can be a stressful, nerve-wracking process, particularly if they don’t book the gig. But don’t take the rejection too personally—not everyone is the right fit for every part.
If your audition goes well and you end up getting the part, the next step will be rehearsals. During this period, actors run lines with their scene partners and receive feedback from the play’s director. Rehearsals provide the time and space for a cast to absorb their director’s interpretation of the source material. By the end of the rehearsal period, each actor should have all of their lines and blocking memorized, and be ready to embody their character in front of a live audience.
Tech week (short for technical week) is the week preceding the show’s first performance with an audience. During this time, rehearsals are dedicated to perfecting the technical aspects of the show (lighting, makeup, costumes, special effects, etc.). Tech week can be very beneficial for actors as it increases awareness of their surroundings on stage when that curtain rises on opening night.
Dress rehearsals typically take place towards the end of tech week and involve all of the technical elements as well as costumes and props. Unlike the rehearsals that occur earlier in tech week, a dress rehearsal may be performed in front of an audience that consists of the friends and family members of those involved in the production. Dress rehearsals are an opportunity to iron out any kinks and issues prior to the preview process.
Preview performances take place after dress rehearsals but before the show’s official opening night. Previews give the director an opportunity to gauge audience reaction and adjust details of the production accordingly. Most Broadway productions host weeks of previews in order to make sure everything is as close to perfect as possible prior to opening night.
The term season in the world of theater typically refers to a series of performances that are planned by a theater over the course of a period of time. For example, a theater could announce a slate of twelve plays and musicals it plans to host between January and December, one for each month. This run of performances would be that theater’s season.