Directing Teaching Drama

Stage vs. Screen: A Comparison of Acting Techniques

acting techniques
Written by Kerry Hishon

What do Julie Andrews, James Earl Jones, and Jim Parsons have in common? Besides names that start with J, these stars are among the many actors and actresses that enjoy successful careers both on stage and on screen. Although film acting differs from stage acting, practice can equip an actor to excel at both! Keep reading to explore the three main ways that film and stage acting differ, then learn a few ways to hone your skills in both areas!


1. Facial Expressions and Body Gestures

The biggest difference between acting for stage versus acting for screen is the location of the audience. In a theatre, the stage tends to be far away from the audience. Depending on the size of the theatre, the actors need to exaggerate their facial expressions and gestures so even the patrons in the back row can see what’s going on. For example, actors cannot express sadness with just a single tear onstage, since only the audience members closest to the stage will see it.

When acting on screen, however, the camera can get extremely close to the actor, which closes the gap between the audience and the actors. Because of the close-up perspective, actors on film must use more subtle, controlled, and natural expressions and gestures. Large, exaggerated “stage acting” can look awkward and silly on screen.

Try It

Choose a short scene or monologue, and perform it twice–once for “stage” and once for “screen.” For the stage version, use large, exaggerated gestures to reach the back row audience members. For the screen version, use small, controlled expressions. Use a video camera or cell phone to record the two performances. Zoom in on the actors while recording the screen version and stand farther away while recording the stage version. Compare how your facial expressions and gestures change when your audience (or camera) is close vs. far away. Are you over-the-top, too subtle, or just right?

2. Voice and Volume

For each live theatre performance, actors have just one chance to get it right! That’s why it is so important to have a strong and healthy voice, and to ensure that lines are memorized. Depending on the show or production budget, microphones may or may not be used during a performance. Even with a microphone, actors must practice and perform their lines accurately each time, with crisp diction and clear enunciation. In musicals, actors must get their notes and lyrics correct on the first try. There are no do-overs during a live theatre performance!

For screen performances, actors have multiple “takes” to get a scene right. If they slur their diction, stumble over a line, or mess up the words, they can do the scene again. Film and television sets have microphones everywhere on the set to pick up the lines. In post-production, actors frequently go back to re-record lines to fix any errors that they made during filming.

Try It

Choose a short scene or monologue and perform it twice. First, record yourself performing the scene for film. Concentrate on accurately, projected lines. Do as many takes as needed to get the lines letter-perfect. Next, record yourself performing the scene onstage in front of an audience. Follow up your stage performance by presenting your filmed performance to the class. Compare how your expressions and delivery change in the two performances.

3. Preparation and Performance

In theatre, performances happen in real time. Stage actors spend many rehearsal hours developing their characters’ personalities and quirks, and spend even more hours memorizing their lines so they can be performed in the sequence of the show. Despite all this preparation, stage actors need to be quick on their feet in case something goes wrong (which, in theatre, it often does!). A missed cue, a forgotten prop, a dropped line or a wardrobe malfunction–no matter what, the show must go on somehow! Giving live performances can be taxing on stage actors. They must deliver the same performance with new energy each time they perform, to get the job done.

In film, performances do not happen in real time. If an actor flubs a line, it’s easy to refer to a script and fix the mistake on the next take. However, one challenge of film acting is that scenes are often shot out of sequence due to budgetary concerns, time of day, or weather. An actor may have to perform an intense scene with lots of running and screaming immediately followed by a happy scene with laughing and smiling. There is little time in between to mentally “re-set.” This can be emotionally draining on an actor. Screen actors must also be prepared to deal with impromptu script changes. Film actors must often memorize a whole new section of script on the fly.

Try It

Click here to download a tip sheet featuring the differences between stage acting versus screen acting and brainstorm some more ideas.

Kerry Hishon is a director, actor, writer and stage combatant from London, Ontario, Canada. Check out her blog at www.kerryhishon.com.

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About the author

Kerry Hishon

Kerry Hishon is a director, actor, writer and stage combatant from London, Ontario, Canada. View her blog at www.kerryhishon.com.