x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

From screen to stage

The line between stage and screen has perhaps never been thinner, but that doesn't mean the transition for actors is an easy one. The switch demands entirely different skills and acting sensibilities

The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, like many acting schools, has separate classes for stage and screen acting. It may seem odd that different skills are needed for what on paper seems like the same job of learning lines and spouting them. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the line between stage and screen has never been thinner.

Last week saw one of the biggest theatrical openings of the year so far: Danny Boyle directing Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in Frankenstein in London (see below). You can also see Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss in The Children's Hour in London's West End, and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard in Anton Chekov's The Three Sisters on Broadway, to take just two examples of the moment. It seems as though it's no big deal for actors to flit between stage and screen productions at will. But the truth could not be more different.

The Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo told me in January: "It's very much the same on a certain level and very different on another level, with the processes and what work is needed going into it.

"In the theatre, you really want to rehearse it. And then you get out in the evening and you go out and hit those things you found in rehearsal. And in film, you don't want to rehearse so much because you actually don't really want to find it until the cameras are rolling, and so you kind of do what a detective does around a homicide scene. You walk around it before coming close to it and then you get a little closer, but you get right up close and get in there when the cameras are rolling."

Even things that seem the same can be remarkably different in reality. For example, making sure you're in the right spot to deliver a line. In films this is done by an actor being given a mark, which is normally a bit of tape on the floor that they are meant to hit, whereas on stage you need to "find your light". This means trying to gauge how the light is hitting you on your face as you are on stage, a far trickier task.

Even the delivery has to be different. On film one would speak at normal levels relying on microphones to pick up the sound. They are so sensitive that shouting would seem very loud indeed. Whereas on stage, one has to project for the audience; the voice needs to be heard in the balcony as well as the stalls. An actor's most precious commodity on stage is the voice and as such the sounds usually are controlled from the diaphragm rather than the vocal cords.

There is also a whole separate vocabulary for acting on film and on stage. This is immediately apparent if you look at a shooting script for the stage, which will include acronyms such as DSL to mean Downstage Left, which describe where the actor should be. On a shoot the camera will often do the work for the actor and there is much more decision-making on the day about where to stand.

Because the actor's smallest movements are picked up on camera, it's often the case that actors movements on screen are much smaller than on stage, where some more grand gesticulations are made while treading the boards so that those sitting 10 metres away can appreciate an internal thought of an actor.

It's not such a surprise, then, that there are actors whose skills are more suited for stage than screen. Some, such as Simon Russell Beale, have brilliant careers on the stage but hardly ever appear in front of the camera.

The Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood adds this nugget to the debate on different mediums: "They say TV is a writer's medium, theatre is an actor's medium, and film is a director's medium."

While some may argue with the merits of this statement, the truth of it is that on stage an actor is the last boundary between the audience and the product. While on film a director can tinker with camera angles and change the emphasis of scenes in post-production, on stage the director can do little to alter the show once the performance has begun.

The performance environment is much busier on film with lights, cameras, boom operators and make-up artists all surrounding the actor and working. Lines are repeated and repeated and then forgotten once the scene has wrapped. In sharp contrast, the stage is an exclusive zone for actors once a performance starts.

In theatre, the actors have direct feedback from the audience as they are performing. They can hear them laugh and applaud. Some actors thrive off this feedback and so find it strange when they are performing on a set where the response is far more muted. The feedback on film only comes at the time that a movie is released or a TV show broadcast.

Feedback or not, one thing that is the same for actors on both stage and screen is the importance of delivering a riveting performance, for without great performances, audiences might as well stay at home and watch bad television.