September 17, 2012 by raconteurmagazine
by Peter M. George
It seems to me that people assuming that theatre-work is performed as screen-work, only on a stage and with extensive rehearsal, ending in a one-off rendition that must be perfect each time. Equally, it occurs to me that people expect it to work in reverse – taking a theatre performer and shoving them in front of a camera, giving them the chance to repeat their performance multiple times without having to care about mistakes.
Whilst it is true that actors trained for the stage and actors trained for the screen can switch between the two, it is not quite as simple and straightforward as one might expect and not all actors can break the habits of their training to push into the opposite medium. In essence, it boils to the simple difference in the proximity of the viewpoint of the audience: by this I mean stage-work requires an actor to perform loudly, with big gesticulations and obvious body language so that all can see and clearly, whereas screen-work necessitates the actor to perform in a more subdued manner, with facial expressions and minute movements to convey the message because the camera is often focussing on just their face.
But beyond the intricacies of the size of the performance, we need to look more into the preparation of each. I won’t delve into the discussions of different types of preparation in terms of Stanislavski’s method acting and the various other forms provided by many great thinkers in the field of performance art, so we’ll pop them all to one side and focus on the type of performance being prepared for instead.
We’ll start by considering the way that theatre is prepared for: with theatre, once you have been assigned your part after the audition and call back process, you get given your script and begin by learning your lines – it seems self-explanatory, however, rather this is different to rehearsing the lines, which is what would be expected. Learning lines is not an enjoyable, nor creative endeavour: it involves reading the lines in a monotone voice (whether that be allowed or in your head) and ignoring all punctuation. The purpose is to get the words settled into your mind. You may then move on to repeat this process with somebody else read the opposite lines in the same manner. Once you know the lines without looking and without thinking, you can then start to play with the inflection of them. By this, I mean you can bring back the punctuation and play around with the way you want to say the words, where you want to pause and where you may want to have actions – but this is just to get a feel for the way it should fall together, not to practice the lines as they appear on show night. Some time after you have the script (and potentially before you’ve managed to get this far in the process of getting lines ingrained in your mind), you’ll start rehearsals – sometimes you may have a rehearsed reading (the actors sit around a table reading straight from the script, no performance involved) – where you can start to play around with everyone’s interpretations, timings and inflections. Even after the item has had the proverbial crap rehearsed out of it, it should still feel loose and natural: come performance time, it needs to still be loose but well rehearsed, so that you can play on the audience. The key to acting on stage is to use the feel of the audience and any visual/audible reactions they make to learn whether to ramp up, tone down or continue on the path of any particular emotions and reactions to dole out during your performance.
Now we can flip over to the preparation required for screen-work: when it comes to the screen, just with theatre, you receive a script after an audition and call back process (rarely are you given a part purely based on showreel material, but it’s not unknown). Unlike the theatre performers, there is often a much shorter period between being given the script and performing the script, but there is the distinct advantage of screw ups being able to be ignored during the performance (I.E. You can reshoot almost any scene). So, rather than reiterating the lines a hundred thousand times in the dullest manner possible, then stepping on to playing with the inflections etc, we skip straight onto the inflections for a short while and forward quickly onto rehearsing the lines with actions and pauses as intended. There is often, but not necessarily, a rehearsed reading or rehearsal time a few times and usually on the day of filming once set up, but before recording starts, there is often a little rehearsal. Then when it comes to each shot, as it’s being set up, the actors often run through the scene once or twice and bang out any kinks that may crop up. Then the filming starts – if something isn’t working, they simply start again and try something new. The key difference here is that it pays well to try a few different things because there is no audience reaction to play with and there’s no fear of doing something wrong because if it doesn’t work (or you inevitably screw up at 6:47a.m. after filming for 13 hours, running on 4 hours of sleep and that being a good amount of kip for that week), you can simply reset and go a second, third or hundred and forty-second time.
So, quickly summating the above – theatre is largely about the preparatory work and playing to the reactions provided, whereas screen involves a much quicker turn around, but a lot more freedom with experimenting on the day and a little less pressure to avoid getting it wrong.