I will never forget the first time I acted on camera. My agent had brought me in to work on a commercial read. With only two to three years of theatrical experience, I walked in and did what I was accustomed to on stage…umm…whoops. Poor, naive, eight-year-old me was completely unaware of how “big” my audition had been.
I was over-the-top and had way too much movement for the minimal frame the camera allowed. It was my first lesson on the differences between acting for film versus acting for stage. Now, I know there are plenty of resources out there on the subject. Definitely, do your research; however, it is important to note that nothing beats the knowledge that comes from doing. So, with that being said, the following is merely my experience being an actor of both film and stage and what I have learned over the years.
Phase One – Auditions. Firstly, the approach is the same. Albeit, I will say memorization requirements for auditions vary. For film, I am always off book whether it is an in-person audition or self-taped audition. The sooner you can be off book, delve into the character, connect with your scene partner (usually a reader off-camera), and be truly in the moment, the better. However, I rarely prepare off book for a theatrical audition. Usually, I do not know ahead of time which scene or scenes I will be given, and often (not always), auditions for stage consist of longer material. Depending on the theatre, producers/directors may see several tens or a few hundred actors for a show meaning they have more time to sit through longer auditions. However, casting directors for film might see thousands of actors for just one single role. With theatrical auditions, I prepare by reading the script at least once, studying the scenes I think could be chosen as audition material, and doing my homework to develop and understand the character. Again, the approach to the role is still the same – create a solid background, make strong choices, and “maintain focus to overcome fear and fakery” (thank you to my mentor, Dr. Parker, for that one), but the technical aspects between the two are what differ – especially in your ability to move. Self-tapes offer the least opportunity to move around. Often times, you are limited to a small frame, minimal camera-following ability, and an off-camera reader to whom you have to establish appropriate eye-lines. In-person film auditions are similar in that you usually have a very limited space, minimal camera-following ability if any, and an off-camera reader – unless you are doing a chemistry read, but that is usually at a call-back audition down the road. Auditions for theatre offer the most flexibility when it comes to movement and space. Many times, the stage is your playground and you are free to use it however you wish. You do not have to worry about the technicalities that come along with a camera, and you have the added bonus of a real scene partner.
On a film set.
Phase Two – Preparation. Once I book an audition, it is time to prepare. Well, in all honesty, I celebrate first, then I prepare. I mean there are so many more noes in this industry, you have to take in and cherish those yesses – you earned it! For film, I wait to receive either the script or my sides. Unfortunately, sometimes this happens right before I am scheduled to shoot meaning my time to study is minimal. Of course, I memorize all of my lines, but more than that, I really study the character and her role within the story. How does she contribute? What is her function to the overall structure of the story? Does she have an arc? What does she learn? What is her background? How does she feel about this person or that person? The list of questions I ask goes on and on. By the time I am done, I should be able to answer any question about her and easily improvise additional scenes – not that you would be asked to do that, but as an exercise, it shows that you truly understand this character. If there are questions that I am not able to answer myself after reading the script, I take those questions to the director. For smaller roles on bigger projects, I have often gone to the first assistant director or will simply wait until I am given direction/blocking before going to the director. This usually gives me a decent idea of what they are expecting from my performance. Another important note – although I come prepared with my own interpretation (after all, they did book me based off of my initial interpretation), I still do my best to show up with an open mind and the ability to take new direction. This is huge. You can have a killer audition and be a wonderful actor, but if you cannot take direction, you will not last in the business.
With theatre, I prepare at a much slower pace in accordance with rehearsals. Part of the rehearsal process is studying and playing around with different interpretations. You use the guidance of your director as well as the participation of your cast mates to accomplish what ends up being the final, polished product. In this regard, theatre can be much more team-oriented than film when it comes to the contribution of the actor. Another reason for my slower pace is I wait to get off book until blocking rehearsals have concluded. I often memorize lines based on blocking; therefore, it would be counter productive to be off book beforehand. Also, staying on book a little longer has the added advantage of opening your mind to new ways of saying a line and can give you the freedom to play with the role a bit more before locking in movement and having to maintain a more consistent performance.
On set of Steel Magnolias at the Delray Beach Playhouse.
Phase Three – Go Time a.k.a. Action a.k.a. Curtain Up! So, this is where you leave everything at the door and trust the work you have put in to shine through. The differences between film and theatre at this point vastly grow in number. Obviously, one is on set with loads of equipment and no audience, and the other is on stage with a live audience and no take two. With film, you have to be aware of more technical aspects. What is the camera set-up like? Is it a two-shot? Dirty over the shoulder? Dolly shot? Is there an A Cam and a B Cam? What lens is being used? Is it a close-up or a wide shot? Where is my lighting? Am I blocking another actor’s lighting? For sound, do I need to do anything in particular to achieve clean audio a.k.a. not step on another actor’s line even if the script calls for it? Will I have a lav or will a boom be used? How do I help with continuity? All of these can factor into the performance you give and should factor in if you want to work at a professional level. It can seem like a lot at times especially when you are wanting to focus on the creative side of your craft, but remember, there is almost always a take two and three, and four – you do not have to be a one take wonder. Speaking of doing multiple takes, although this is normally a pro for most actors as it allows them the freedom to make mistakes or try new things, it can also be burdensome. When I have had emotional scenes in film, it has been difficult to muster those raw emotions again and again. For instance, I was shooting a film where my boyfriend is tragically killed. One scene opened with me crying in bed alone mourning his death. This was a bit tricky because I had nothing within the scene, no dialogue to get me to the emotional point I needed to be at right at the beginning. Whereas in theatre, I could use the sequential progression of the story to get me to this state, I had to rely on my off-camera work. Also, I communicated with the director beforehand about which takes were close-ups and not. If the camera is tight, you obviously want to have the emotion at its most raw and real. However, if it is a wide shot, you can reserve your emotion a bit for those more crucial close-ups. Additionally, I was in character long before the cameras started rolling, and the crew knew to let me be in my own little world leading up to “action” being called.