What Makes TV Acting Different? Backstage Experts Weigh In

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year for television actors and viewers alike: Emmys season. In celebration of the gifts borne of the small screen, Backstage is talking all things TV this week, including our guide to who’s in the running for the upcoming Emmy Awards, as well as our breakdown of the 50 greatest television performances of all time. While the industry often clumps film and television into a sole category, the latter is its own beast with its own rewards; we spoke with TV and Backstage Experts to break down what exactly they are.

Verbal performance is everything in television.
“Television. A stepchild of film? Not quite. Television is a child of radio. Not only did television replicate the business structure of radio (sponsorship revenue in return for advertising time), but it also carried on the tradition of regularly scheduled entertainment. Most important for the actor, the story was told verbally. Furthermore, while film and theater audiences were held captive in their seats, the radio audience was prone to wander away or change the station at any moment. So the medium required a heightened verbal story to hold the audience's attention up to and through the commercials. Therefore, an entirely different form of storytelling evolved, one in which the words carry a plot that, in television today, must peak every 10 minutes or so.

“So again, what does this tradition mean for the actor? Well, you won't win any acclaim for cutting lines in favor of visuals. The story must be made clear verbally, so that when a viewer goes to the fridge for a snack, he or she can still follow the plot. Keep the performance clear, clean, and simple. And know how to work fast. Because of the time constraints inherent in regularly scheduled programming, there is precious little rehearsal. So know your lines, block the scene so that the camera can get as much of the scene as possible in a single shot, and then deliver with as few takes as you can. It's personality before character, like film, but not as visual. It's dialogue-driven, like theater, but not interpretive. In other words, a different set of skills is necessary, similar but different from those required of both film and theater.” —Brad Greenquist, on-camera acting teacher in Los Angeles

The type of television opportunities will vary by city.
“It’s hard to say. I moved to New York after graduating from Vassar, and six months later I moved to L.A., because at the time there was way more happening there in the film and TV market (and I had a bicoastal agent who suggested I test the waters out there). Now, New York has now become a very important TV market, with over 30 shows filming here and counting. It’s a great time to be an actor here, and actors can build up a bunch of credits (co-stars, guest stars, etc.). However, there aren’t a lot of sitcoms here, so if that’s your thing, go to L.A.” —Matt Newton, film and TV acting coach, professional actor, and founder of the MN Acting Studio in New York City

Actors have less “control” over a TV performance.
“Well-prepared actors may find themselves filming a scene when they forget a line or something happens that changes the direction of how they thought the scene should go. This could send them into their head and stop the take. But the director might have liked what they were seeing or had a vision for how the footage could be used elsewhere in the storytelling. In transitioning from stage to screen, actors need to practice letting go of control. This doesn’t mean letting go of preparation. Far from it. Rather, when they arrive on set, actors must have the ability to trust the other artists they are working with as collaborators, and play along. Being fully prepared and simultaneously able to stay relaxed and in the moment is a vital skill for film and television acting.” —Rob Adler, on-set coach, actor, director, teacher, and founder of AdlerImprov Studio in Hollywood

TV acting may dictate your location.
“I started out a die-hard New Yorker, but really grew to love working in Los Angeles. Even though I originally wanted to do theater, TV presented more opportunities for me, which led me out west. Eventually I came to appreciate the car culture as well as it pertained to auditioning. I would rather sit in traffic listening to the radio en route to a meeting than freeze my butt off hailing a cab to Chelsea Piers. So what started as more opportunity led to greater comfort due to the climate.” —Becki Newton, L.A.-based actor

Rehearsal time will be very, very minimal.
“Don’t assume you are going to have rehearsal time. In film time is money, so we don’t spend a lot of it rehearsing while a crew of 150 highly-trained (and highly-paid) artisans stand around and watch. This is doubly true in television. You will likely do one read-through of the scene, and one “rehearsal for marks” – where any physical movement in the scene is recorded and your blocking marks are delineated with colored tape on the floor. You will then be released while your stand-in works with the camera crew. Use this time to rehearse on your own or with your scene partner if they are willing. (They may not be.) You can either head back to your trailer and work on your two lines so that you know them backwards and forwards and sideways, or you can stay there on the set and watch the camera rehearsals. If you’ve never done this, it can really help to watch your stand-in stepping through the blocking and watch how the rest of the crew is working. Here is where you might also be able to pull aside a kind member of the crew and ask some questions.” —Timothy Davis-Reed, TV actor

Get in on the TV action! Head over to Backstage's television audition listings!