Stage Acting vs. Film Acting?

As many of you know, I am a “classically trained actor for the stage.” Well, not really. However, over the past 11 years I have done a lot of “language based plays” – a ton of Shakespeare, and narrative based works at Book-It Repertory Theatre. This experience (35+ stage plays since 2000), and training (some teachers include: Hal Ryder, Judith Shahn, Dr. Joy Sherman, Ki Gottberg, Bill Dore, Sean Ryan, Michael Place, Jessica Marlowe-Goldstein, Dennis Krausnick, Tom Todoroff, Nike Imoru, Jodi Rothfield, Steve Salomunovich, and John Jacobsen) has laid a firm foundation for the practice of my craft and the development of my voice.

My experience of acting has taken place on a stage, for the most part. As I move more and more into a medium where characters and stories are captured through the lens of a camera and with sensitive microphones, I have been forced to make “performance adjustments,” to suit the “audience” being played to.

First, let me say this: The formula for creating believable characters with authentic behavior is, in many cases, exactly the same when you are preparing a role for the stage or the screen. Therefore, “good acting is good acting.” Now, I will not go into all of the techniques when it comes to actor preparation, but I do think that actors strive to create “real” people, and that when building a character, we are often examining the same elements (human behavior patterns, the text, our emotional landscape, our objective and obstacles, etc.) when prepping for either medium.

There does seem, however, to be a discernible difference in camera vs. stage performance. In a recent workshop, while we actors worked in front of the class, some of us received “you are stagey” as feedback. Now, I think we can appear ACTOR-Y or THEATRICAL when “performing,” (I am suddenly reminded of No Acting Please by Morris) in general, which should be avoided, but the following notes will tend to the problem that many experienced stage actors face when auditioning for the camera.

This leads me to two points: Point 1. You might hear things like, “It’s too theatrical,” “You’re doing too much,” “Keep it simple,” “It’s too big,” or “It’s too stagey” now and again in classes or early practice. This may be especially true if you come from a theater background. After all, in staged plays, actors often have to communicate with others onstage who might be fairly close to them in distance, while being required to project sounds (words) which must reach to the back row of the audience. This often creates a lack of intimacy. And, if you have ever seen or worked in outdoor theater, you know nuance is seldom achieved due to the challenges posed by talking over airplanes! If your body is used to this practice of vocal projection and “living” in a world where your physicalization also has to travel a good distance, your reading for the camera might come across with less truth or believability. Point 2. What do we as actors DO with this kind of feedback (you are TOO BIG, etc.)? As you know, in my experience, many directors don’t communicate well with actors (and if you are a director and you are having trouble reaching your actors, please read this book by Judith Weston), so, as responsible artists, we have to ask for clarification whenever possible, and also to learn how to interpret direction which is difficult to fulfill.

So, if you hear “You are too stagey,” what do you do? Talk quieter? Move your hands less? Move your body less? Act less? Do less? What should the actor do?

Well, first, “ask for what you need” (thank you Steve Salamunovich) and get clarification as often as possible. If you cannot get a good note out of the director, “go towards something” (again, thank you Steve Salamunovich) NOT by being less stagey, but by going towards something…What?…A more intimate connection with the material, yourself, or your partner, perhaps? Maybe go towards specificity. Make a few strong choices instead of a lot of half-choices. If you hear “keep it simple,” that is also fairly general, so ask for clarification, and make sure that your version of “keeping it simple” does not lead to intention-less acting. Yes, we hear “less is more,” but less, even when that means “acting the silences,” has to be filled with life, intention, energy, and emotion.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are auditioning in a casting office for film/TV/commercials:

  • Over-gesticulation looks especially awkward on camera.
  • You might have a spike on the floor to attend to.
  • Don’t scatter your focus (eyes) all over the room. Be specific.
  • Put the action in front of you, so your eyes stay facing the camera.
  • You might not have a reader to work with.
  • Your reader might give you no connection.
  • There might be a microphone (quieter is often “better”).
  • The camera loves the eyes.
  • And, as always, get a sense of the genre of the piece so you can prepare appropriately (drama, comedy, farce, corporate video, commercial, etc).
Okay, I think that is enough for today. I wanted to briefly touch on the issues facing actors in the Seattle market, especially those with limited opportunities for auditioning and working in front of the camera.
Good luck, Actors, and Happy Auditioning!

4 thoughts on “Stage Acting vs. Film Acting?

  1. I think you pretty much nailed it. Film acting takes a softer touch, more authentic movement. Easy to explain in abstract terms, so many directors just leave it at that (“You’re too big.” “Less is more.”), not realizing that it doesn’t actually give the actor anything to do except ask for clarifying direction. I think the ineffective directing drives me crazier than the “stagey” acting I see so often in Seattle films.

  2. Some of the best directions I’ve heard in terms of reducing “staginess”; “Feel everything as intensely but only inside, let your eyes tell me, not your body.” Frequently, swallowing your physical energy will raise your emotional stakes and help clarify your objective. “You’re doing five gestures, pick one, that’s all you get.” Again, that one motion, breaking through when you can’t hold it back, becomes so much more important and tells you what and where your focal point is.

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