Theater Versus Film

Yes, I know some of you are thinking, “Isn’t it spelled ‘theatre‘?” Nope, not in English spoken in the United States where this blog resides. Not unless you want to start spelling “center” as “centre” and “liter” as “litre.” 

So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, last night I was in the first show of a theater production. I guess I thought it’d be unlikely I’d ever type that last line because I haven’t wanted to do theater. And many of the casting people and producers I know have a cautious eye toward people who do a lot of theater because they’re afraid doing it teaches you to overact and be bigger than what is believable. In community theater it’s okay sometimes because that’s what’s expected but on camera it can look cheesy and fake.

Like an L.A. producer friend of mine says, “Acting shouldn’t look like acting. It should look like I’ve just walked in on a conversation, not a production.” He would reference theater as what you didn’t want to see on a screen because the audience wouldn’t believe it and couldn’t go into that almost-mental trance that is called “suspension of disbelief.”

Remember in the high school plays how people thought the folks on stage were doing a good job because they “projected” and were loud enough for the people in the back to hear them? Or because they put “energy” into every line? It’s usually difficult to do that and actually sound real. Look at everyday life. Not everything you say is “high energy.” Watch a big-screen movie with some A-List actors and you’ll notice that some lines are said softly. Some are said with very little energy and some are said in a way that’s pretty boring. And you certainly won’t see all the movements and hand gestures of typical theater. Why? Because the situation doesn’t call for it. Everyday life doesn’t call for it.

So at first I was surprised when I accepted a part in a play that I hadn’t auditioned for or sought. But I’ve started to look differently at theater itself. The project I’m on at the moment is classified as musical theater. Meaning that, as the lead, I sing a couple of duets with the female lead. That’s certainly uncommon with modern film because, again, it shatters “suspension of disbelief.” Real people don’t just break out into song and dance accompanied by strangers who, though they’re supposedly singing this song for the first time ever, know all the words and just happen to break out into some really good (hopefully) choreography.

I’ve started to think of the songs and the dialogue that the director asks me to say while looking at the audience as inner dialogue. The audience is hearing my thoughts or getting a sneak peak into my motivations. In film, like in real life, you don’t always know who the bad guy is. In theater they just come right out and tell you sometimes even through a catchy little tune.

I’ve enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Despite the memorization, long rehearsals and an occasional temper-tantrum from the director that I haven’t experienced in film or television (don’t worry, it hasn’t yet been directed at me…I don’t think).

But I am enjoying it a lot. As the lady lead (I like that better than “female lead”) and I were discussing last night after the show, it’s like an outter-body experience. Unlike film, the director can’t just call “cut” and do a retake. And there’s not all those people looking live at your every move. The camera is cold and doesn’t react to anything but an audience for a theatrical production is living and breathing. You almost have to put yourself in a trance to keep in character. You can’t completely forget the audience since sometimes you have to wait to say your next line until laughter or applause dies down. Sometimes you have to focus on your acting partners and other times, like when you direct your words more in the direction of the audience, on only the scene itself.

In film, I often hold eye contact with my scene partner while we stand or sit very close to each other. Sometimes in theater, intimate conversations are had standing ten or fifteen feet away in order to keep from blocking other actors or just to give the stage a balanced look. That took some getting used to because my instincts from film tell me that I need to be lost in my scene partner’s eyes except for occasional, natural glances away and we often become lost in each other while they move the camera here and there to get the shots they needs as we repeat the scene several times. Not so in theater. I’ve been “corrected” by the director a few times for getting lost on my partner during rehearsels (I still feel like that’s a good thing). It works well on film and television because it’s more real, but a theater audience can’t move around like a camera.

So though I don’t quite have my finger on it, I don’t think of theater as simply a film on a stage. It’s different than that. Is it as real looking as a quality film on a screen? Probably not. But it’s still a disciplined art form when done by people who know what they’re doing. Just because a line is said loudly doesn’t mean it’s, “good theater.” A stage actor’s job is still to come off as real as possible. I can’t stand to hear a line that sounds fake and broadcasts that the actor is, well, acting. Nothing kills suspension of disbelief like that. So it’s important to work on both volume and realism as best you can. They don’t have to be completely mutually exclusive.

So to sum it up, I think an intelligent actor or actress can do both film and theater without being molded into one style over the other. A good actor/actress can adapt and know that in some ways it’s like playing a different instrument. Just because you play guitar doesn’t mean that you’ll try to hold a piano sideways to play it. Of course, just because you can play guitar doesn’t mean you can play the piano in the first place.

Follow Lee on Twitter and Facebook.