The requirements for an actor to transition from performing for the camera to performing on stage for a live audience are quite clear. The technical mastery and skill sets of the actor dictate their ability to make the shift between these mediums. The actor’s instrument must be up to the challenge: their voice, body and performative energy must be primed and ready to fill the theatre with a character. What’s less clear, however, is when we transition in the opposite direction. What is required from us when we go from performing for a full house to performing for the ominous lens? How do we make that adjustment? Is an adjustment required from us at all? Let’s analyse this problem. Allow me to wax lyrical and make a few claims about what I believe the shift from stage to screen requires from an actor.
Allow me to be brief at the commencement. I am in two minds about this argument – and I do believe I am right in calling it ‘an argument’. It seems to be an ongoing conversation between actors and acting teachers alike, whether the shift between mediums requires a shift in technique from the actor. Some would argue the mediums are the same in what they demand from the actor, and some would argue they are in completely different ballparks. The argument has created a sort of rigid (and borderline snobby) consensus about what actors are ‘allowed’ to do; typically, if you have experience in theatre, it should be no trouble for you to transition into film acting. Conversely, if you’re well versed in acting on screen, you must go and do a LOT of work to make the shift to treading the boards on a stage. Perhaps this is the case for reasons we have already outlined, (technical requirements ect) or maybe it’s just thespians being snobby. I’m a thespian first and foremost, and I will humbly wear the scoffs and tossed tomatoes of any outraged thespians reading this article. Regardless of whether or not this is true, (that transitioning from stage to screen is easier) what has happened is that there is a lot less information out there about what we need to consider in preparation for it.
I’m going to channel my inner high-school essay writing student and propose a thesis statement to you: The only difference between acting on stage and acting on screen is the size of the audience. On stage, the audience is vast and numerous. On screen, there is an audience of one. This is the only difference, but a performance must adhere to that difference. When this is done effectively, we don’t lose any of the life or energy from a performance, but we appropriate it and adapt it to the medium of film.
Supporting Claims: The main three areas which we must adapt to the shift in audience size are: voice, body and image work.
In the same way that a thespian would turn their nose up at the sound of an untrained voice in the theatre, so too would an experienced film actor cringe at an overworked voice on a film set. It happened to me – A few years back I was humming and tongue-twisting in a caravan before a guest role on a sizable TV show. The well established older actor sitting in there with me asked, “so you’re a theatre actor, huh?” The question was pointed enough for me to get the gist. “Chill out, kid.” was the message which I received loud and clear. This older actor’s voice warm-up was a scalding hot coffee and some work on his accent, and yet his voice was so effective for the character. It was raw, imperfect and rustic. It was real. Then there was me, basically wearing a ruff around my neck channeling William Shakespeare whilst trying to be a 21st century human being.
This is not to take away from all the voice work I’m sure you’re all doing, it’s just to reiterate the above thesis statement. On screen, we are performing for an audience of one: the camera. Forget the thousands of people sitting watching what the camera ends up capturing: the only set of eyes and ears we have to worry about belong to the camera.
So we adapt. All the techniques and skill sets we practice vocally which allow us to fill a theatre: articulation, resonance, dexterity and vocal malleability ect, they are all still there, but they are adjusted for a performance for one. All too often I’ll watch an actor’s self tape and hear them talking at full volume during incredibly intimate scenes. Their voices will betray their attention to the given circumstances: it’s like they are yelling in a funeral home.
This, by no means means we can or should be vocally lazy. The audience still needs to hear the words we are saying and follow along with the story, there is still skill required from us to be able to do this. It just means we need to pursue what’s vocally real more. When we are allowing our voices to be as real as they can be, (I’m using the word ‘real’ to mean ‘non performative’ – I can hear the sound of a thousand vocal coaches screaming in the distance at these claims) we allow for a range of film-appropriate choices. Whispering, breath, near-inaudible sounds all become ways in which we can communicate with the other characters.
What I would argue becomes more important on film, however, is accent. As a general rule, there’s no hiding on camera – the camera sees (and hears) all. Half-baked accents will be exposed dramatically on film, where they may have escaped in the theatre due to the many directions the audience’s focus is pulled by the story and bodies in space.
Prioritise your vocal work with the same vigour you would if you were performing on stage, but prepare it for an audience of one, who is sitting right next to your character listening intently. Trade off giving the audience access to the story for the pursuit of a voice which is most real to your character.
My screen acting coach can always tell when I’ve just come off a season of a theatre show. I’ll do a take of a practise scene and he’ll say, “Jack, have you been doing much theatre lately?” That question is all it takes for me to know what he’s talking about. Immediately I can reflect on the take that’s passed and feel my arms waving around, feel my feet moving on the ground and the shapes I was making with my body. “Ah,” I’ll say, and we’ll go for another take.
Screen acting is like performing for an audience of one. To perform on stage for a multitudinous audience requires us to share the story by being more physically expressive. The bigger the audience, the more expressive our gestures and expressions must become.
In the same way that we have now worked on re-tuning our instrument vocally to be more appropriate for this all-seeing audience of one, we must do the same with our bodies. I’m hesitant to apply a label relating to the size of a performance in this conversation. Some theatre performances are incredibly minimal, while some film performances are massive in size. So, again we come back to our thesis. We must adapt our performance to the audience of one. Our gestures must be adjusted. Our characters’ physicality must be adjusted, which may allow for even more detail than we were afforded on stage.
I’m sure a fear for theatre actors moving to the screen is that they worry they won’t be able to move much or do anything. This isn’t the case. Watch this scene featuring Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Flawless and pay particular attention to his gestures and expressions:
Welcome back. So I think we can agree that Hoffman’s character was not physically restricted by the medium of film. His characterisation was wonderfully full of gesture and expression – but they were masterfully crafted for the camera.
There’s one final claim I’d like to make about physicality when transitioning from stage to screen: when you’re on camera, stillness is the key. Stillness, more so than when we are on stage, does WONDERS for an actor’s performance. And when I say stillness I don’t just mean minimal movement, I mean total and utter stillness for an extended period of time, with the actors eyes open and unblinking whilst looking at the other character or an eyeliner close to the lens of the camera. Assuming that the actor’s internal life is alive and active, stillness is a great skill for the actor to practice and develop. We’ve already mentioned how the camera sees all: don’t be afraid of this fact. Use it to improve your performance. Allow the internal life of the character to rise to the surface and shine through your eyes and allow it to be seen by the camera, and in doing so all the people watching. This is the craft of a screen actor: we may only have one set of eyes looking at us, but we must let those eyes bore into our soul. No pressure. What we’ll talk about next will relieve you of any pressure you may be feeling right now about how it could be possible to truly live as the character through stillness.
Image work is no more or less important in either film or theatre acting. But – I would argue that there’s a difference. For the many eyes of the audience in an auditorium, we must paint images in their minds with all the tools at our disposal, but first and foremost through our use of language. Eyes, which would typically be the main access point for images are not always available to the audience whilst actors are on stage, especially if the theatre is in The Round or they are watching hyper-realism which doesn’t prioritise the fourth wall as much as other plays might. For the camera, the actors’ eyes are everything. Ok, they are not everything – we just saw in P.S. Hoffman’s performance above that voice and physicality and costuming are integral parts of the performance, but let me be hyperbolic, ok! (Hyperbole… wow, I really am writing a high school exam paper right now…)
It all comes down to this: If you see it, the audience sees it. Whenever you reference something in a scene, reminisce, refer to someone or something, you must see what you are saying – even more than you would do on stage. The camera sees all, and our image work must be so specific and sophisticated that it can allow our performance to permeate right through the lens and into the minds of the audiences, inspiring them with the images of the story we are trying to tell. We don’t have the same connection to the audience we would have in the theatre – they can’t feel the energy of the room or see the sweat running down our foreheads, they need to feel all that through the way we use our imaginations.
If image work is foreign to you or if it just aint’ your forte, check out Pat’s arctic here: Images: The Actor’s Hidden Power. It’s a great way to start building the skill of effectively using images in your scenes.
I’ve made a couple of bold assertions in this article so far. By even saying that in my experience there is a difference between stage and screen acting I may have ruffled a few feathers. So, to be a high-distinction earning essay writer I’ve gone and found an example which makes me want to take ALL of my claims which I’ve written here and throw them in the bin, in order to allow me to strengthen my thesis. And what is it- or more accurately who is it who is making me want to do this? An actor who has made me question the boundaries of performance several times now. Andrew Scott. You may know him as Jim Moriarty in Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch. More recently, you might have seen him as the Priest in Fleabag, (though I believe colloquially his character’s name is now “The Hot Priest”).
Scott is one of my favourite actors and has a way of challenging my beliefs about acting more frequently than many people. When he’s on stage, he breaks the rules. When he’s on screen, he breaks the rules. He’s well versed and experienced in both stage and screen acting and combines those skill sets in an incredible way.
I want you to watch one more scene for me. This is from season 2 of Fleabag – it doesn’t contain spoilers necessarily, but if it’s been on your ‘must watch’ list then watch the whole thing first. In fact, if you haven’t seen or heard of Fleabag – put it on your ‘must watch’ list too.
What Scott does in this scene, (any many scenes he’s a part of) is take my thesis about screen acting – that it must be ‘adapted’ for the camera – and challenge the necessity of that. This scene is a masterclass in what would typically be considered ‘filmic’ acting AND ‘theatrical’ acting. When he is sitting next to Fleabag on the bench, his performance is subtle, intimate and brimming with detail, image work and inner life. Then when he is freaking out about the fox, (a motif which begs a whole article to itself) he gives a performance which could be placed in an 800 seat theatre. The fox brings out behaviour in The Priest which is highly expressive. The gestures are huge, his voice is loud and explosive, (and they are literally sitting in a church yard!) yet the performance is perfect. This performance begs a final clarification of my thesis statement and a final answer to the question of what is required from the actor when transitioning from stage to screen.
Alright, Andrew. La-di-da. Way to go and challenge my beliefs, thanks a heap. Let me channel my non-existent high school debating skills and bring this home with a rebuttal and closing statement.
In Andrew Scotts performance, he demonstrates to us that the medium we are performing in does not necessarily dictate our performance – but I’m still standing firm in my belief that what has changed is the size of the audience. My addition to the thesis is that we must develop the craft of acting on screen to be able to understand how a camera sees us. What I think Scott does really well is not ‘breaking the rules’ of film, but rather understanding and adhering to them really well. Scott clearly understands what each frame and lens size requires from him. He understands the type of lens the creatives are shooting on and adjusts his performance accordingly. He knows when they are shooting with a wide lens or capturing a wide angle, and adjusts his performance for those eyes. Then, when the camera operators change lenses and come in for mid shots or close ups, he again is able to adjust his performance accordingly.
To transition from the stage to the screen we must be able to adapt to the major shift in the size of our audience: from many eyes to one. What we must also do is understand how the ‘one’ – the camera – operates, so we are able to tailor our performance to its needs.
What doesn’t change when moving from stage to screen is 99% of the work. We must still give it all we’ve got. What doesn’t change is our work on backstory, relationships, objective, need, stakes, targets, ect ect ect – all the elements of our process which builds the life of our character. All the shift from stage to screen requires from us is an understanding of the medium we’re moving to, and an adaptation of our craft to be able to thrive in that medium.
Thanks for reading!
Ps: if you’ve got some more exploration and curiosity left in you yet, check out Andrew Scott’s performance of Hamlet’s To be or not to be soliloquy. It’s divisive, and is an interesting example of the flip of what we’ve been discussing: a ‘filmic’ performance on the stage!
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