Acting for Film vs. Acting for Stage

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. 

On set.

Of course, with theatre, there are technical aspects to consider too. Your voice, diction, and ability to  project are paramount during live stage performance. The audience will quickly lose the storyline if they cannot understand what you are saying. Making sure you are not upstaging another actor or blocking  them from a certain section of the audience is important as well. Also, audience member’s eyes are  attracted to movement. If the attention in a scene should be directed toward a particular actor or actors and you are on stage at that moment as well, you need to make sure your movements are minimal so as  not to distract from the focus of the scene. In film, the camera does this for the audience. Again, you  must be aware of your lighting; although, you are not as limited as you are in film. Scene and costume  changes are another consideration to theatre that can require some technical experience from actors. The last aspect to theatre that I want to point out is the fact that it is indeed live; therefore, you have  coughs, sneezes, talking, laughter, gasps, shuffling, and phones ringing to deal with while on stage trying  to remain authentically in character. The ability to stay open to changes on stage (E.g. a chair being  knocked over, something spilling, etc.) while simultaneously blocking out distractions from the audience  is no easy feat and takes much practice. You have one shot to tell the story to that particular audience – to make them feel something or possibly learn something – and no two performances are ever the same. 

Now, there are several other differences between acting for film and acting for theatre. Money, lifestyle,  and the business are just a few major examples. However, at the end of the day, it boils down to which  is the most satisfying for you personally as an artist. For me, I honestly enjoy both fairly equally. How  much usually depends on the type of role and the overall story. I have had bit roles in films where I  showed up for one day, did my piece, and left. In these situations, I would easily choose theatre any day.  However, I have also had the privilege of bringing stories to life that desperately needed to be told and  others that were just a whole lot of fun. This is where film is greatly satisfying, and I love the subtleties  with which I can convey a simple thought or feeling. Many times, film can feel more natural in that  regard. With theatre, I appreciate so much the opportunity to be a part of the entire storytelling process  from beginning to end. There is an instant gratification that comes with being able to tell a story to a live  audience – what you are attempting to convey is received instantaneously. Also, the fact that no two  performances are ever the same and something could and almost always will go wrong is exhilarating to  me. There is just something so precious about theatre. It is a series of moments shared with an audience  that can never be duplicated in the exact same way; the moments are fleeting. Whereas in film, the  moments are captured and preserved forever in one singularly wonderful way. Quite interesting when  you get right down to it, isn’t it? Regardless of the differences, I encourage you to try both if you have  not already. The practice of film and theatre will only make you a better overall actor and will push you to your full potential. 

As always, remember to enjoy the journey! Happy trails

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