On Camera

What’s the difference between theatre + film acting?

Watch the entire episode here or read the transcript below!

Hello and welcome back to my channel, or if this is your very first time here, hi and welcome. Today, I am going to talk about a question that gets asked a bit, and that question is, what is the real difference between theatre and film acting? So, I want to just break it down into sort of five main points that is really going to help you determine the differences of what you need to do, whether you’re on stage versus on camera.

Number one, the biggest difference for me anyway, a huge one, is the amount of rehearsal time you get and sort of the precision of the performance, so where with most plays and musicals, you will get weeks, sometimes, a couple of months to rehearse and get the performance just right, and I’m talking very technically specific. I mean this is especially true for musicals but also even plays that have a lot of props, a lot of moving pieces. You have to be on the exact mark doing your exact action on this beat, or it could actually be dangerous, and the other thing is the rest of the cast are relying on you to do that to, so that this happens and this happens and this happens. So, physically, it can be more mechanical than being on screen.

That said, on screen, you’ve got the issue of continuity. Because you are doing multiple shots from different angles, you have to actually make sure that you are precise to a point of doing the same kind of action on each one, but I think people think about that less. It’s one of those things that you don’t really think about until you’re finally on set, and you’re like, “Oh, crap, I have to do this 10 times from different angles. What hand was I holding the cup with in the first shot?”

Anyways, so I think you do get way more rehearsal time with a theatre performance, and when it comes to something like for my example, doing Jersey Boys, 440 performances, I had to go out there and give the same performance every night. Yes, I had to do different emotional and mindset work to get into the right place that I could do it, but ultimately, the director wanted the same result. He wants the audience experiencing the same thing, no matter which night or day of the week that they come along, whereas I believe that on a set, you are a lot freer to kind of let some emotions come out and experiment a little bit more within the restrictions of the script and what the director’s giving you.

Okay. Point number two is a bit of a technical one. So, I want you to step out of the eyes of being an actor right now and think from a production standpoint. Who is really telling the final story? So, with a play, with anything, any live performance, even though you have a director who has directed the show to get it to a certain point, on the day or the night of the performance, you, the actor as well as some other things like maybe the orchestra and the lighting and everything, but you are telling the story from start to finish.

When you’re on a set, and you’re going to be in a TV show or in a film, you are going to tell your little part of the story, but ultimately, the director and the editor are the ones that pull that story together and decide how it plays out, so, choices that you made where you were doing one thing because you thought that this is meant to affect some sort of change, I mean that could be cut out completely and change the context of the story, if that makes sense. So, you are not really the storyteller. You’re a little bit more of a puppet in film or television, not in the negative sense, but just in that you have to just be emotionally available, give them options, but then trust that they’re going to pull that story together later as opposed to theatre where you tell the entire story on the night.

Now, a very technical one is the size of your performance, and this is where I think so many people go wrong. So, people just think that automatically, if you’re on stage it’s big, if you’re on screen, it’s small, but that is not the whole story. So, obviously, on stage, you are needing to show how you feel to people that are further away. Some of them may not be close enough to see the expressions on your face, which means you’re relying on using your body language a lot more to tell that story, but this is still going to vary depending on the size of the audience and the size of the theatre. So, there are live show like live performances, plays that have been put on to an audience of 20 or 50 people, which is a very intimate space, meaning you do not have to do all the things.

On the flip side, when you’re on screen, yes, if you are in an extreme close-up, you can just think something, and we can tell you’re thinking it even if nothing moves on your face, but then you’re going to have mid-shots where we can still see your face, we can see a bit of your body, so you’re going to use a little bit more expression to tell the story, but then there are also going to be these wide shots where your entire body is in it. We’re not getting much detail from your face, so you can be a lot more physical.

The real technician that truly understands his craft is the one that finds out what shot he’s in right now, what’s being seen and what’s not, and really tailors his or her performance to the size of that shot. For someone that’s on stage, it’s going to be the same thing. You’re going to get better at reading how far away the audience is and how much you need to give for them to physically be able to follow the story.

This connects to point number four, which is your vocal performance. So, I’ve had this issue before. I’ve never had any trouble with projection because I have done live performance where we weren’t miked or where a microphone has broken, and I just had to belt out the rest of the show just with my lungs, and so that was never an issue, and that was the first thing that I really had to adjust and be more aware of when I was going to be on screen because obviously, you are miked, but that said, I tended to overcompensate and give them almost no projection because I felt like, “Oh, but they’re up so close. I need to be quiet.” That can be an issue too because you need to give the microphones, like the sound people, enough volume that they can actually work with because they can always tone it down if they need to, but if you’re so quiet, they’re not picking it up, that’s an issue.

So, you will definitely, if you’re someone that’s wanting to do onstage performance, learning how to project, going and getting those voice lessons, and also learning to really enunciate clearly, this becomes an issue too when you’re singing. People can get a little bit sloppy. Modern pop songs these days, you often can’t even tell what people are singing because it’s like (singing) instead of tell them that I love you. In theatre, you need to be able to understand every word because even the songs are going to continue telling the story. So, either way, you need to be really clear, but you’re going to have to have more power and maybe some more training to really make that work on stage.

That said, if you’ve had no training and no experience and you struggle vocally, I’ve seen this in class sometimes that everyone’s got their thing that they struggle with the most, and for some people, it’s just getting heard. It’s projection. A lot of the time, it’s confidence. So, it may be that you’re not confident in what you’re saying, not understanding what you’re saying. Maybe it’s your accent, but sometimes, it’s that you just don’t actually know about breath control, and you’re not breathing properly. So, either way, I think vocal training is a really important thing, no matter which medium you’re performing in.

Finally, these are the clincher for me, and the reason I ultimately decided not to keep doing musical theatre, it is the repetition. So, where on, whether it’s a film or a television show, you learn this stuff. You might get some rehearsal, and then you just go shoot it, and then you move on. Next scene, next episode. In theatre, especially in a long-running show like the ones that I was doing where you’re probably at least doing 12 months per contract, that’s a lot of repetition. We’re talking eight times a week of the exact same performance. Once it’s locked in, it’s locked in.

You’ve got people monitoring your performance in the audience, like the resident director will be watching a few nights a week to make sure everyone is on point. If you have a funny night where you do something a little bit different, you’ll probably get flagged by them at the end during notes just saying, “Oh, you did this weird thing with your hand yesterday,” and you’re like, “What? I don’t even remember. I was thinking about dinner.”

So, there is a discipline to being able to repeat a performance that many times, and some people love the structure of it. They love the predictability, the repetition. For me, it drove me bonkers. I got bored a few weeks in, and I was like, “Oh, is this it?” That is why I now prefer film and television because it’s a constant challenge. It’s always new things to learn and things to do, and you’re always on your toes, and it’s just a totally different experience. So, that’s a personal preference thing.

All right, that’s enough for me, but I would love to hear from you in the comments if you have your own thoughts about what really is the difference between stage and screen acting and if you’ve tried that yourself. Have you done both? What do you prefer? Let me know, and so you don’t miss out on any future content, make sure you are subscribed, and you like this video if you got something out of it. I really can’t wait to see you guys next time. Bye for now.


Kat is a copywriter, brand & messaging strategist personal branding coach and the founder of The Personal Branding Project whose mission is to help you go from best-kept secret to in-demand brand.


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