Taking your Acting from Stage to Screen

Women stage screen

The history of acting is an ancient and proud one. The earliest recorded instance of a person relating words to an audience as a character dates back to Thespis, who performed in 532 B.C. in ancient Greece. And despite actors being thought of over the centuries as prostitutes (ancient Rome), pagans (early Middle Ages) and disease vectors (Elizabethan era), acting remains a widely admired and noble profession.

And lest we not forget, television and film have only been around for about a hundred years. For a very long time, stage acting was the only kind there was. Even today, the vast majority of actors get their start on the stage. Budding actors usually get their feet wet working in high school, university and community theatrical productions.

But for most actors these days, the temptation of taking stage experience to the screen is a siren call that is hard to resist. The thing is, no matter how accomplished you are as a stage actor, there are some differences you should be aware of when it comes time to make the transition. Here are a few tips for how you can maximize your chances!

1. Let’s get small

As stage actors, we are relentlessly drilled with exercises teaching us how to project so our voice will reach the back row of the house. However, when you are strapped with a body mic and you hit that kind of volume in front of a camera, you are going to blow out the sound guy’s eardrums on your first take. The first thing you have to learn is some unlearning: take the volume way down, and learn to express yourself with your eyes and micro facial expressions. “Acting behind the eyes” is the somewhat trite general rule, and a good start. But the fact is, no matter how much experience you have on stage, it isn’t a bad idea to take an on-camera acting class when you are ready to make the switch. For our purposes here, suffice to say that less is almost always more on camera.

2. Even smaller

Same goes for gestures and movement. In stage acting everything physical has to be exaggerated for the consumption of the people in the back row. However, on camera even the tiniest gesture carries tremendous weight. “Indicating,” or demonstrating emotions through broad, exaggerated gestures is a big no-no, even more so than it is in most modern stage productions. Dial back expressive gestures of emotion, dial back talking with your hands, and think inner worlds of emotions rather than outer ones.

3. Odd and intimate positioning

The final product we see on the screen after filming and post-production is complete may well look completely naturalistic. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that filming a conversation, for instance, simply involves plunking down a camera next to a couple of people and having them go at it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The camera’s focus can force directors to alter what would normally be natural distances and angles at which people carry themselves into warped and strange configurations. You may find yourself having an intimate conversation with a scene partner with your face just inches away from theirs, or positioned at right angles with them. It takes a bit of getting used to, but just try to relax and adjust to whatever you are asked to do.

4. Ready for your close-up

Not only will you be acting up close to other actors, you may well find yourself just inches away from the camera. This means you will be inches away from the camera operator, and possibly a whole herd of people including his or her assistant, a trainee, a boom operator, possibly the director, an A.D. or two and who knows who else. It sometimes takes a minute to get used to acting with so many people around. You are going to want to take a moment to run through your lines with your scene partner–before or as the shot is being set up, if possible–and get yourself settled. Most directors and other actors will want at least a bit of rehearsal before the shot, so don’t feel bad asking for a quick run-through of the lines. And doing so while the turmoil of the shot set-up is occurring around you is good practice for staying in the moment while the pack of people is shooting you in the scene!

5. Speaking of people…

When we act on stage, there are sometimes one or two crew members visible to us in the wings, and perhaps other actors waiting just off-stage for their entrances. But for the most part, the only people we see besides our scene partners are the audience members–if even them! There are theatrical spaces where you can feel at times you are acting in a fuzzy black blanket, and the only other people in the world are the other actors. This is definitely not the typical case with on-camera acting. As mentioned above, the camera and sound crew is usually going to be at least a few people, even if the director prefers to watch the action on a monitor some distance away. But in addition, there are dozens if not hundreds of people working off-camera on any production that make the magical, imaginary world of make-believe work. While these people are generally professionals who understand the importance of quiet and limiting their activity during a take, they are still going to be a presence. So getting used to acting in front of people who are sympathetic but perhaps not really focused on what you are doing is a definite skill to work on, or at least an eventuality to mentally prepare yourself for.

6. Stop-and-go acting

This is perhaps the biggest difference in the actual acting of stage versus screen: the director yelling “Cut!” and expecting the actors to make adjustments and then get right back into the scene. When we act on stage, we are trained to keep going through anything; we also learn plays and musicals as one long piece. So we have the luxury of easing into the spirit and emotions of the piece–we get to ride the wave of the overall story. Not so on camera. It’s like surfing versus skydiving. There are rarely shots that are longer than a few minutes, and even those are not common. Getting your objectives and motivations down pat from moment to moment is a key skill to develop for screen acting, and honestly one that just takes time. The way to begin to develop this skill though is to thoroughly know your lines and your character’s objective and their arc from beginning to end, top to bottom, not only of the entire piece, but within each scene, and within each beat in each scene. Close-ups require close-up work on your lines and character!

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