• James Stranahan

Acting on Stage vs. In Front of the Camera: What’s the Difference?

As an actor, I find both performing on stage and acting in movies to be exhilarating. I am at heart an entertainer, so I love to bring characters alive and transport the audience into a different world, one that is often very different from their own. Whether I am in a theater production or making a movie, my goals are the same: to make the story believable and the audience to feel something by my performance. How I accomplish that, though, and what gets in the way of it happening can vary because the two mediums are so fundamentally different.

The first is a question of where the audience is when I act. When I am on stage, my viewers can be anywhere, from mere feet in front of me all the way to the nosebleed section of the theater. That is a very different perspective, and it must affect how I act. Take, for example, a scene that requires that I brood because I’ve been dumped by the love of my life. Those in the front row will be able to see me sigh and stare off into space, but people way in the back won’t have a clue what I’m doing. That’s when body language, often exaggerated, comes in. I may slump my shoulders, drag my feet, and stare at the ground - anything to convey to people hundreds of feet away that I am preoccupied with the loss of my significant other.

It’s the opposite when I’m acting in front of the camera, of course. The camera can zoom in on my face, and the audience will see the footage perhaps months later. In this case, I’d look pretty ridiculous if I overacted here like I did onstage. This is when I dial it down and try to play it more naturally, knowing that the camera will miss nothing.

The second difference concerns how I use my voice. You may have seen the behind-the-scenes footage of a scene from your favorite movie, which shows that far from being just two characters talking to each other on a fine summer day, it’s actually two actors that are surrounded by a camera crew and microphones, all intent on capturing every word the actors say. That’s a big advantage for them because they can focus on acting normally instead of trying to project their voices, as is done in theater. This is all about “I”/your perspective. It feels a bit odd to switch to the above perspective, but I don’t have a scene from your own acting career to reference here. Thank you.

When I am on stage, especially when a production might not allow for microphones, I must be sure that I enunciate my words and speak loudly enough that I am heard in the back. No one wants to see a theater performance and not be able to hear what’s being said.

Then there is the question of lines. I would love to say that I have never flubbed a line, but that would be a lie. Somewhere in the archives at Tip-Top Productions, there’s a bloopers reel that includes me stumbling here and there, much to the amusement of other actors and crew. At least when it’s done on a movie set, we can all just reset and have another take (hopefully just one), knowing that on the last day of the production when we all celebrate a successful shooting, I’ll get roasted along with everyone else.

On stage, though, is another matter. I only get the one shot at a line, and if I do mess it up, I had better smooth it over convincingly. That’s one of the reasons theater actors rehearse so relentlessly - it’s the best way to (hopefully) ensure that a line isn’t dropped or butchered.

So, yes, acting on stage and in films each imposes its own demands on the actor. Truthfully, I love overcoming the challenges and bringing out my role so that my audience can connect with it. Whether I’ve got a camera inches from my face or am striding across a 100-foot stage, it will always be about one thing: telling a really good story.

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