Adapting Your Performance for Stage and Screen

By Emma Wright

It’s often said that theatre is an actor’s medium, film a director’s, and television a writer’s. This is an interesting provocation to start with when discussing the key considerations an actor must keep in mind when adapting their preparation and performance for stage versus screen. Traditionally, the key difference between stage and screen is that stage is a live medium, whereas screen is recorded, but these definitions are becoming less concrete as theatre and filmmakers continue to push boundaries and experiment with shifting the form. Does theatre have to be live? Is theatre still theatre if you’re watching it on a screen?

You’ve probably heard or been taught that the key difference between performing for the two mediums is the size of your performance. On stage, actors deliver “big” performances, on screen, they must be “smaller”. But what does that actually mean? Essentially this is referring to the fact that actors must always be adjusting for the ‘frame size’. It’s important to note that this idea of “big” for theatre and “small” for film is not a hard and fast rule; yes your performance will need to be larger to fill a 5000 seat theatre in the sense that audience in the back row must read your performance as clearly as those at the front, but what about in a 40 seater? Yes your performance will need to be more contained for a ‘naturalistic’ drama, but this doesn’t necessarily apply to every moment or every genre. I believe it’s important to focus on this idea of frame size as opposed to big versus small.

Performance Size & Adjusting for the Frame

When adjusting your performance for the frame size, there are a few key considerations. Firstly, you need to think about the location of your audience. Your audience may be 20 people sitting in front of you, it may be 200 people, or it may be a camera. Regardless of the medium, an actor must be aware of their audience and of pitching their performance to their audience whilst staying in the moment and engaged with the world of the script. This is a skill developed over time and which eventually becomes somewhat subconscious.

Of course, traditionally, on screen actors are required to deliver a performance that is more intimate. This is because on screen we are often watching actors in a close-up frame, framing just their head and shoulders, so an actor needs to be in control of their facial movements and gestures and doesn’t need to project their voice beyond what they would in everyday conversation. For screen, always remember that though you’re aware of the camera, the only person you’re really performing to/for is your scene partner, so your performance doesn’t need to be any bigger than that communication requires. On stage, yes, you want and need to be seen and heard from the back row. This doesn’t however mean that you push the character or the emotion for the sake of being seen and heard, it’s about having the vocal and physical technique to carry your performance without it being forced or becoming inappropriately melodramatic.

You do have to be mindful on screen of over-gesticulating and extreme facial movements, as the camera will magnify them. Stillness is generally key, but it’s also important not to come across as wooden. Look at actors like Meryl Streep – would you call her performances “small”? No. But they are appropriate for the character, for the project, and her choices are deliberate. If you’re moving about unconsciously or for the sake of moving, that’s when it becomes a problem. Through our lives we develop habitual behaviours such as touching our faces, excessive blinking, lip biting or licking, scrunching of the forehead, swaying, thigh slapping and hair twirling, all of which are distracting on camera, so it’s important to be aware of your personal ‘ticks’ and work to erase them unless they are part of your characterisation.

The Rehearsal Period

A big difference between working across the two mediums is the rehearsal period. Again, there are no hard and fast rules here. Some theatre productions will go up after one week of rehearsals, and some films will spend months in a rehearsal room. Typically though, when working on a stage production you will have somewhere around one month to rehearse, whereas for screen you’re likely to only have a couple of short meetings with the director and potentially some of your castmates (if you’re lucky), maybe a table read, and then as much or as little time as the schedule permits on the day before the scene shoots. You will likely have some time to get your bearings on the set whilst the various production departments prepare, perhaps depending on the size of your role, and then there’ll be time to walk through the scene to figure out your marks and eyelines, during which your director may give you some performance notes. Then it all comes down to taking direction and making adjustments between takes.

For theatre, you generally have an extended period of time working with the text, the director, and your fellow actors to connect, create chemistry and mould your performance. On a screen gig, you may only meet your co-actors on the day of the shoot, someone who could be playing your brother, best friend, or romantic interest, so you’ve got to have some technique up your sleeve to create relationships, the history and chemistry, fast.

With screen, you’ve got to be adept at memorising lines on the fly and adapting very quickly to script changes. With a play text, unless it’s a new work, you have the script from day one and it’s not going to change. With a television script things are constantly changing and you’ll likely only be getting the week’s material a week or so in advance. Screenplays are somewhere between the two; it’s expected you’ll have a draft of the script from day one but it’s likely to change throughout the course of filming and lines may be cut or added last minute. Of course, every project and every production team works differently, so there are exceptions to these rules.

Practical Differences in Performance

Traditionally in screen, actors repeat their performance for multiple takes, with each take presenting an opportunity to tweak the performance. On stage, you’re repeating your performance daily in real time, so you have just one chance per audience to tell the story, and no matter what happens – unless there’s a safety risk to an actor or audience or there’s some kind of accident which prevents the show from continuing – the show must go on. In line with this, screen projects often don’t shoot sequentially, so actors are required to work out of order and have a strong grasp of the overarching story and timeline so that in the edit their performance has a sense of continuity. Though you may rehearse out of the sequence for stage, in performance you get to track a character’s journey from page one straight through in a linear fashion to the end, which can assist the actor in building momentum and making sense of a story’s arc.

On screen you are rarely performing in a ‘finished’ environment. With technological advances and the rise of computer-generated imagery, productions are relying on actors to ‘fill in the blanks’ on a set and use their imaginations to conjure images which will be created and added in post-production. This differs to stage, because onstage you will always have a complete world to perform in. This world may not be naturalistic, it may be abstract or metaphoric, but what is in the space is the finished product as it’s what the audience will see in the space come performance.

Because of this, there are some differences in how an actor navigates the space and handles their blocking. Onscreen, because the camera can hide a lot of things and obscure them from the frame or disguise them in the edit, actors will often have physical ‘marks’ in the space which an actor must ‘hit’ for a certain shot or lighting state to line up, or a sound or music cue to trigger. These are usually small sandbags, or fluro marks made of tape on the floor. Onstage, because an audience can see what the actor sees, these marks have to be a little sneakier. You may have to find a way to say line up with one of the side curtains, or be two steps downstage from the stage left chaise lounge. In some theatres you may get a small physical mark on the floor, but this isn’t always possible, and it’s still just as important to be accurate with your positioning.

Approaching Emotion

A much discussed and debated element of performing across mediums is what constitutes adequately truthful emotion. I think a lot of people believe that a screen actor must connect deeply with the character’s emotions because the camera doesn’t lie, whereas on stage an actor can somewhat ‘fake’ the emotions, and use their body and voice to communicate an emotion without actually experiencing it. This partly comes down to the fact that actors in theatre cannot always be expected to produce the exact same heightened emotions night after night, day after day, and therefore require technique to assist them and to use their instrument to portray an emotion the script demands that they may not necessarily be able to access in the moment.

There are a few things to discuss here. Firstly, I believe that both mediums require an actor to be in touch with their emotions, but that emotion should never be viewed as an end-result but rather a bi-product of action and of pursuing an objective. Secondly, an actor should aim to always make the most of whatever they are feeling in the moment, however inappropriate or appropriate it feels, but must have technique in place for when a script demands a specific emotion be conveyed. It is right that the camera doesn’t lie, and onscreen an actor’s inner life must be detailed and truthful (as I believe a theatre actors should be also), but don’t forget that there are things to help you here that a stage actor doesn’t have. For example, if you are required to cry in a scene, you must get yourself to that emotional place, but tears can be introduced through makeup, and you have the luxury of an edit to help best present the emotion. 

Producing tears is less important in a 5000 seat theatre when the majority of the audience won’t even be able to see them, but smaller theatre venues are possibly the most challenging of the mediums as there really is nowhere to hide. However in larger venues, actors can often get away with using their vocal and physical technique to portray emotion, such as adding a quiver to their voice, or reproducing the sounds and physicality of a cry without the tears.

In both mediums, you’ve got to become skilled at filtering out the distractions, especially when you’re required to enter a vulnerable or heightened emotional state. On screen you’ll need to ignore the boom mic hanging down in front of your face, the camera, and the assortment of crew rushing about doing their jobs. You’ll have makeup artists running in for touch-ups, a script supervisor coming over to let you know if you made changes to the dialogue, your dialect coach and director giving you notes, and a camera assistant popping up next to you to take a light-reading against your skin. So in all of this, you need to find a way to focus, concentrate, relax, and stay in the character’s and scene’s headspace. Similarly onstage, you’re working off a live audience. You may have people walk out, a baby start crying, a group enter partway through the opening scene, people may laugh in the most serious moment, or not laugh at all in what’s supposed to be a comedy. It is, however, really rewarding to have this exchange of energy, which is something that you don’t have onscreen.

Final Considerations

A screen performance, as mentioned earlier, can always be made to look better in the edit, but a stage performance just is what it is. Of course in both mediums you have other departments to support you; a musical score can do wonders in stage and screen for making an audience feel an emotion, as can a change in lighting state. It’s also worth noting that in theatre, often you’re performing works that audiences are familiar with, and this means you will be compared to the actors who’ve played the role before you. This doesn’t occur as often on screen, unless you’re working on a revamp or taking over the role of another actor mid-shoot (it happens!). A stage actor also has to deal with the critical response to their work in real time, whilst their still performing, which can be challenging, especially with negative reviews, and actors must find a way to prevent this from tainting their work.

All in all, whether you’re performing on a stage or for a camera, the same fundamental acting principles apply, but the key differences lie in how you size your performance in terms of the frame you’re acting within and how you rehearse. Otherwise, it’s about staying relaxed and truthful, listening, being open to your impulses, collaborative, playing off your scene partners, having a well-honed instrument, a good sense of timing and humour, and enjoying the process.

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