Many professional actors have flawlessly transitioned between acting onstage and acting for the camera over the years. While the two mediums are distinct and require a specific skill set, there is much debate about how different they really are. In this article we’d like to take you through a few of the common differences between stage and screen performances, as well as offer some advice on technique and approach should you aspire to hone a well-rounded acting skill set.
People are often quick to point out that the biggest difference between acting for the camera versus the stage is the size and sound of the performances. There is some truth to that, but it’s not entirely true that the stage is always ‘bigger’ than the screen. In fact, most award-winning film performances don’t consist of still, soft-spoken acting. ‘Big’ can also be expressed on screen, provided that it comes through with an authentic heart.
One of the major differences between acting for the camera versus acting onstage is the location of the audience. As a stage actor, you would be performing to members of the audience who could easily be seated more than 100 feet away from the stage. In order for the audience to fully experience the sights and sounds of your performance, you have to act with the back row in mind. Even though your cast members may only be a couple of feet away, you need to create a larger than life expression of your character to allow for optimal audience satisfaction. (Although this is broadly speaking – many beautifully subtle stage performances have rendered audiences breathless, though they are usually linked to iconic plays that an audience would be familiar with. We’ll get to this later.)
When it comes to acting for the camera, however, you only need to be audible and seen by your cast and of course, the camera. With the camera and microphone always on you, as a film actor you can confidently speak to members of your cast as you would in real life. Just remember, it needs to look and feel real. Say, for example, you’re on set running lines with a co-actor. If someone were to overhear you two, it should look and sound as if you’re having a conversation – not at all like you’re rehearsing. If they can tell that you’re rehearsing, then you’re simply doing it wrong. As a screen actor, it is your responsibility to speak and move as you would naturally.
Also remember that when a camera and microphone is involved, reality as you know it becomes slightly distorted – at times it would serve you well to project even less than you would in real life. To help you develop in this area, try rehearsing a few subtle face ticks in front of a mirror, such as lip quivers, eyebrow lifts, and so on. Successful acting for the camera relies heavily on these minor facial expressions.
We all grew up watching our favorite plays and musicals, and can’t help but return to theaters to watch them being performed even as we get older. We know all the songs, can anticipate the lines, and even know when things have been changed. By nature, theater is extremely repetitive. Popular shows will no doubt be put on by various companies around the world. And while all this helps to build the brand and sell tickets well in advance, it also makes the audience familiar with the show’s material – and this is not always ideal. For stage actors this means that every line must be right – most audiences want to hear a play the way it has been written and get pretty disgruntled when there are dialogue errors.
Screen actors have a little more room to breathe in this area because the audience likely has never seen their scripts. Depending on the writers and direction, words can be changed even up until a few minutes before ‘action’. So for aspiring film actors, you can take comfort in the fact that it’s OK to mince your lines slightly during an audition – the most important thing is that you deliver a unique and convincing performance.
Similar to the familiarity audiences and critics will have with your material as a stage actor; they’ll also be inclined to compare your performance to the distinguished ones before yours. Once again because of the repetitive nature of theatre, audiences and critics alike will only give you freedom to a certain extent. On stage, the familiar is the thing that sells your performance – people come to see what they expect to see.
Acting for the camera, on the other hand, leaves an audience and critics with little or no reference point at all. This is a handy tip to remember when you start auditioning for film: the director is looking for a version of you that suits the story they have already created. The key to not overacting is to get into your character’s mind, and remember that the director is looking for you and your reactions to this imaginary situation.
If you’re an actor trying to transition between these mediums or simply looking to increase your audition skills, working one-on-one with an acting coach can definitely help. Typically an acting coach with experience in one or both of these mediums will help you find your own style and technique in preparing for auditions, acting for camera (filmed and critiqued), dialects, non-verbal acting, and even resume writing. With the right support and training, you’ll be primed for the spotlight, no matter where you land!
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