The Big Three: Differences between Stage and Screen Acting

Screen acting and theatre acting have differences. Here are my big three:


The first and most important is often the last one that actors think about and yet the most crucial: In theatre, there is an audience. In film, at the moment of acting, there is no audience.


Sounds obvious. Yet understanding this will have a deep, subtle effect on your work. On stage, you always share with people out there in the darkness. There is interplay between you and the audience – the observers and the observed.


When filming, you are surrounded by technicians, but they are not your audience. Only a few key people like the director, the producer, script supervisor and sound crew are even wearing headphones to hear what you are saying!


The camera, certainly, isn’t your audience. It’s a recording device that will document your acting life. (Which will be cut and pasted at your director’s discretion and shown on a screen much later if you are lucky.) You must open yourself up to it, to be minutely scrutinised by it, but you ‘share’ with it at your peril. Once you help us to understand your subtext or the story, you will seem false.


You have to find your ‘real’ life and surroundings within this weird world full of cameras, microphones and people – to be a child again and believe, in the moment of acting, that there is no one else there but the other roles inhabiting this ‘reality’ with you.


You need to think hard at every moment and drive what you (in the role) need. But not add anything else. The camera will see your thoughts. Thinking (without ‘showing’) is enough and you have to trust it. You mustn’t add ‘sub-titles’. All you can do is ‘be in the moment’ of acting.


We will see genuine emotion. Your eyes literally shine with all the thoughts that light them up. Too often, this light dims when an actor is speaking learnt text. All the thoughts, memories and pictures in your head need to be as specific and extra-ordinary as they are in life. You need life and humour in your eyes. You must be as multi-dimensional and interesting as real complex human beings are – as you are!



Next – film is shot out of order. You may bury your lover before you’ve met them or murder your boss before the interview. Each scene is done from many different angles (or set-ups). The bigger the production, the more set-ups there will be. Each set-up can involve many takes and each take needs to be fresh and spontaneous. So film takes tremendous imagination and focus, not to mention, stamina.


I have a quick-tip for this. Take a pack of filing cards. Now write a card for each scene you are in, including the ones where you don’t have any dialogue. Write the scene number at the top of the card. Then put down where you’ve come from and, at the bottom of the card, put where you’re going to. Write who is in the scene with you and what you know or feel about them at this time. For example, is this before or after you’re pregnant? Do you know about the robbery yet? Then put down anything else that’s important – I’m feeling hungry, I’ve just run a mile, it’s a heat wave etc. Now tie all your cards together and you have a flick-book of your journey through the film.


Now when they pick you up at 5am and tell you you’re not doing scene 32 but scene 64 because the set blew down in the night, you won’t spend the next hour in a panic, thumbing through the script trying to find out where you are in the story and how bad your limp is!

You don’t need to write down your dialogue – that’s in your script. Why can’t you write these notes there too? Because, in a big film, that script will change a dozen times and you’ll end up with a rainbow coloured script of re-writes. You’ll never have the energy to keep transferring your notes. Also, it is bulkier than your little carry-around flick-book. And doing this work really makes sure you read the script thoroughly!


It will also be really useful if you have to re-do any lines afterwards in post-production. That is often months after filming and, by using the card, you’ll be able to get right back into the moment.


Which brings me rehearsal. Or rather the lack of it. There’s not much rehearsal for film – well, not as we know it in theatre. And, until you arrive on set for shooting, you may never have rehearsed with, or even met, the actors with whom you are going to play the scene.


You need to do a tremendous amount of preparation before you get to that set. But it must be the right kind. It is you ‘as if’ you were in that situation or living in that time. And that ‘as if’ could mean a complete change of physicality, depending on the life you’ve led in the role. You might be a medieval peasant or an astronaut. ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where am I?’ must take the life you’ve led and the period into account. And you have to reach it organically through research, physical work and specific imagination. At a deep level, you have to, truly, inhabit that imagined world.


‘What do I want in the role?’ Your needs must be powerful and strong. These needs may be hidden to the other characters (that’s sub-text), but strong needs must drive you.


Beware of deciding how you get what you want or how you ‘say’ the lines.  If you plot a course or decide how to play the scene, you will not be open to react in the moment. Turn off the ‘director’ in your head. You don’t know what the others will bring yet. You need to stay open to all possibilities.


When you were a child, you didn’t say, ‘Now, I’m going to show you a character called Superman, who can fly’. You said, ‘I’m Superman! I can fly!’ and you must think like that with your roles.



*This is a slightly longer version of my blog that first appeared in Mark Westbrook’s

Mel Churcher

Twitter: @Melchurcher

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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.