Having discussed this a few times over the past weeks, I’d like to dive into the question of transitioning as a theater actor to film/television. It’s a consistent question I get, I wanted to clarify a primary thread I’ve found in those conversations, and share it with others who may be looking for the same discussion.
Starting off, I would like to stress, that transitioning to film/television – that is not the goal of every theater actor. Nor should it be. Some find a home on stage, and there’s no reason they should feel the need to leave that, nor should anyone give them pressure or make them feel bad if they have found their niche. And going “home” to theater – that is not the goal of every film/television actor. Some don’t love it the way others do, and being told it’s a “more true art form” for actors is hurtful and inaccurate. They are two different beasts, and should be treated as such.
However, since my work is in film and television, I am speaking to those who do want to make the transition from theater to film/television.
Theater, and honest theater work, is an excellent foundation for any actor. Studying the actual craft of acting, and learning how to approach a character and a project – it’s invaluable education for every actor. It gives you a base that is so much easier to work off of, rather than learning about everything as you go.
I’m not saying it’s absolutely necessary – I’m just saying if you have a foundation in theater, and good theater, I’ll definitely look twice at you, and I’ll be more confident to have you try something outside of your wheelhouse, because I at least know the tools you are working with are solid.
If you’re a great theater actor, I can be confident you’ll be a good film/television actor.
What I’d like to address, is being a great film and television actor. Because it goes both ways – being a great film/television actor doesn’t mean you’ll be great at theater. You’ll be good, but not great. It’s difficult to be a great theater actor, just ask anyone trying to get a lead on Broadway.
A great pianist wouldn’t expect to pick up the drums and immediately be able to play – they’d need practice, and learn this new instrument. The nuances, the muscles, the approach – it’s as though your large motor skills are developed, but now you have to develop the fine motor skills. That pianist, though, would have a hell of a leg up on someone who’s never played a musical instrument. They already know how to read music, they know how to keep a tempo, and more importantly – they know how to practice.
Knowing how to practice is an essential skill for any artist.
I’d like to preface this by saying I’m not an expert. I listen as avidly as anyone else, anytime Mark Rylance chooses to speak. But this comes from the little things I’ve noticed in the audition room over the years, specifically from theater actors who struggle to find work in film and TV.
In my time working with actors, I’ve come to notice two distinct styles that I call presentational and intuitive. Those are my labels, and they do not apply specifically to theater work vs. film/TV work – they are simply different styles of acting. I do find that theater actors tend to use more presentational work, and film/TV actors tend to use more intuitive work, but both require the other to be truly great.
Presentational acting, to me, is exactly like it sounds – presenting the character, the story, and the emotion to the audience. It’s the person who, standing on a mountaintop, shouts ‘I’m on top of the world!’ with outstretched arms, presenting themselves without pretense and without self-judgment. They are presenting themselves for the world to see.
Intuitive acting, to me, is when the actor trusts the camera to pick up every thought and emotion running behind their eyes (and trust me, the camera picks it up). This same person, sits on the mountaintop with a small smile on their face, and looks to the horizon and the expanse of world below them, and says nothing. But we see – that they also feel on top of the world.
Both are wonderful styles. And you can find excellent examples of actors who employ either style in both theater and film/TV. However – on a base level, theater tends to be more presentational, and film/TV tends to be more intuitive. A stage actor must ensure that the person in the back row of the theater feels the same emotion from them as the person in the front row. They need to ensure that every laugh, every sob, every realization and every quirk can be felt by everyone in the audience. It’s a difficult skill, to project everything without losing authentic emotion.
Conversely, a film/TV actor has the luxury to trust that a camera will pick up their thoughts. The camera catches everything, I tell you – if you think it, I will see it. But the catch is – if the actor doesn’t have that trust, if they try to show emotion – the audience tends to immediately dismiss their vulnerability, because they can feel that lack of trust, and the acting comes across forced and inauthentic.
To be a great actor in either venue, I think you need a blend of these styles. But it does seem, when I see an actor who has primarily done theater in my audition room, I have to work to get them to trust the camera. And when I see film/TV actors venture to the stage – I see how much work they have to put into presenting that same emotion at a volume that everyone can feel, without losing any trust.
If you’re thinking about making the transition from theater to film, or vice versa, or maybe you aren’t planning to change your venue at all – I encourage you to explore your own methods and see if either of these styles are applicable. This particular classification has been something I notice in the audition room frequently, when working with actors who come from a primarily theater background, and it seems to be something that I see them struggle with while simultaneously struggling with the ins and outs of business side of film/TV. I know the transition can be extremely difficult, so any work you do to develop more of your acting skills, will only help.
Photo by stefano stacchini on Unsplash