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The Green Room: What’s the difference between acting for the stage and screen?

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag on stage, which she then took to screen. Photo: BBC

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​

Gary Abblett is a 38-year-old jobbing actor with experience at the National, Royal Shakespeare Company, in the West End and on tour

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Eoghan Barry is 30. He studied for an MA at drama school. He has worked as an actor on fringe projects, with young people and is also a writer

Adam Lovett is a 45-year-old actor who has appeared in Oscar winning film, BAFTA-winning TV, at the RSC, National Theatre, and in the West End

Ros Clifford, 30, is currently a deputy stage manager, she has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years

Gary Screen acting is easy, sexy and makes you rich. Stage acting is hard work, destroys relationships and makes you poor.

Adam I could go on for hours about this. I’ve always hated how theatre acting is sometimes seen as superior to screen. In my experience, both can be incredibly hard to get right.

Eoghan Acting for screen may afford you far less preparation time. Less opportunity to rehearse, develop the character, build up to the moments you’re performing. You have to be able to produce ‘on demand’ more.

Ros I guess it’s a totally different atmosphere, isn’t it? In theatre you have a room full of people experiencing a moment live. And the acting company has weeks of rehearsals…

Vivian Craft. Practical things such as projection, facial movements, gestures have to be much smaller on screen. Obviously. Eye movements are more important on screen. When I do screen work, the first few days are me trying to ‘de-theatre’ myself – ie, stop shouting.

JonThe same applies to radio. I’ve seen some really subtle stage actors come into the studio and bellow.

Eoghan It requires you to do your own preparation as best you can, do what you need to make sure you’re able to be present and find the emotion and depth when “action” is called.

Ros I watched an interview with an actor who had done a very long run of something on stage and they were now filming the screen adaptation. He said he had to learn how to make everything smaller.

Adam There are so many technical requirements to screen work, and so much bustle going on around you, that it can be really hard to block that out and be present.

Eoghan I agree with Vivian – there’s a lot more precision in some ways. Things have to be smaller, more accurate, quieter faces and voices, and then there’s practical things such as hitting marks and knowing to tilt your head to the left, rather than the right, at particular moments.

Vivian Saving your energy, measuring it out over the course of the day. Knowing when to be ‘on’ and the rest of the time waiting to be ‘on’. Almost in a state of suspended animation. And trying not to eat all the biscuits because you are bored and have to wait for another couple of hours.

JonA friend did a Poirot early on in his TV career and asked David Suchet for some advice on how to act in front of a camera. Suchet told him that the camera is your best friend, so it knows everything about you and it wants you to succeed, but it also knows when you’re lying.

Vivian That’s lovely. I must remember that. I get terrified when I see the camera.

Adam I adore screen work because you’re always rehearsing. Every day a new scene, every day trying to solve a problem. You never fall into the rut you sometimes can with a long-running show.

Vivian I used to get so utterly obsessed and devoted to recreating every single thing in each take, that camera acting became an exercise in repetition. And once I got over that misapprehension, mainly by a lovely leading lady admonishing me and telling me to try more and be different on each take, I relaxed immensely and got into the groove. And I think I became better.

Eoghan So patience too. There’s a lot of sitting about. And as Vivian suggests, there has to be a bit of attention to detail for certain things. And knowing how many people are relying on you to get it right, so not being a dick while on set.

JonI used to do some producing for an indie radio company and there was one actor whose takes were all the exact same length in the edit. To the second.

Vivian Me too – even where I would breathe. I would be so tense. Then I was working on a show and I became so stressed about my performance that I went out with a mate, drank a bottle of wine, came in the next day thinking: “Fuck it”, and it worked. I’m not advocating drinking, but relaxation. Exactly the same as theatre, it’s more alive when you are relaxed and able to play with it. Play is everything.

Eoghan Too right Vivian. Relaxation is so key. And the camera will see tension even more.

Adam Theatre is all about words, energy, pace. On screen those things matter a lot less than feeling it authentically and hoping the camera picks it up on your face. The words carry far less of the meaning.

Ros I would be interested to hang out on set for a day to see the differences for myself. I’m such a theatre baby.

JonBeing a broadcasting assistant or production assistant isn’t that different from the rehearsal-room part of a deputy stage manager’s job, I think. With even more stopwatches.

Ros More stopwatches? Good grief.

Eoghan You would be amazed how little gets done on some sets in a day. Often not for want of trying, just that there are so many things that need to come together for a take to happen. It’s a different pace of existence.

Ros I’m used to very fast-paced rehearsal rooms… maybe TV would drive me mad.

Vivian Oh it’s ridiculous how little gets done sometimes – or certainly from the actor’s perspective.

Ros I worked with a film and TV actor a couple of years ago who had never done theatre before. They were utterly bemused by how theatre worked.

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