I recently did a career consultation for a classically trained Shakespearean stage actor with 24 years of experience. He could easily act circles around me but although television production was exploding in his area and he desperately wanted to transition into that market, he was having very little success doing so. I helped him realize that there are several key differences between a stage- and camera-oriented career. He was so impressed with what I had to say that he offered to create an event where I could share this information with actors from all over Georgia. I was flattered, but all it took was a simple explanation of how performing and promoting stage and screen acting were different and the changes he needed to make because of these differences. Let’s examine the main differences between performing onstage and performing onscreen.
1. Audience Location
The biggest difference between performing onstage and performing for the camera is the location of your audience. Onstage, the audience can easily be 100 feet or more from the performers. Since the audience must see and hear a performance to enjoy it, stage performers must act for the back row. The result is a larger than life performance since the other actors are only a fraction of that distance from you.
Since the camera can always see you and the microphone can always hear you, you only have to move and speak so the person or people in the scene can see and hear you in television and film acting. If someone is three feet away, speak as though they are three feet away. If they are 50 yards away, speak to them in that manner. Reality is less enhanced when a camera and microphone become involved. In fact, due to camera-work, score, lighting, and other effects, it is sometimes better to do less than you would in real life because so many things are augmenting your performance. So the main responsibility of television and film actors is that they behave naturally. No exaggerated sound or movement is required.
The second major difference between stage and camera acting is the familiarity of the material. Theater is by its very nature repetitive and therefore familiar. When a play takes hold and becomes popular, it is put on by company after company, night after night, all over the world. That repetition creates an iconoclastic image of the story. When people think they know the material, they want to hear it exactly the way it was written and they know when it is changed because it is so familiar to them. The words of the play become iconic and any errors of dialogue will sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. Imagine if Richard III chose instead to say, "A horse, a horse...or maybe a camel?"
Television and film is different because the audience has never seen the writing. It is fresh and largely written on the fly. Words are being changed right up until shoot times in many cases. Therefore, at a TV or film audition, an actor can make mistakes or small changes without consequence. An original and believable performance is king.
The third difference between stage and TV and film is the iconic nature of the characters and celebrated performances of those characters. The audience and critics will compare you to past versions of the same show. Because many stage characters have been played over and over, there is only so much leeway an audience will accept before they start to complain. People often go to the theater to see something familiar so you better give them what they want or the rotten fruit will start flying.
In TV and film, you will almost certainly be the only person to ever play any given character so what the producers are looking for is some version of you. They are looking for the person who fits the world they are creating. No one has played it before so there is no reference point. It is up to you to show them what your part of the story looks like, and if they agree with you, you will get the part. So there is generally far more leeway in developing (or not developing) a TV or film character than there is in the performance of an iconic stage character.
*This post was originally published on Sept. 12, 2013. It has since been updated.
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