I think it’s nearly 10 years I’ve been trying to decide whether I agree with this! I first heard it said by Phylicia Rashad on a New York TV station, and I’ve been mulling it ever since.
I thought I disagreed with it, actually thinking film was more life-like and theatre more “artful” – at least from the actor’s perspective – but I think I now agree with it! Well, at least about the film and theatre; the TV part is harsh!
Thing is…I think theatre is where actors really get to test their mettle, and I think it’s also the medium in which the actor’s performance is an equal player with the other elements which make a production really memorable: the set, the lights, the soundtrack, the costumes… And you get a sense that you’re all working together in real time once the curtains go up. And is with the other arts, if you’re a bad actor, there’s no saving you once the show opens. If you’re bad and unconvincing, there’s no post-production tricks to save you.
Not so in film. Sadly, I think almost anybody – with a good director, good production values, and a skilled post-production team – can be made to look good on film. There’s that old cliché that on film “less is more”, and in many ways it’s true. In film, you have much less control of the pacing, the volume, the blocking. The frame – not the actor – should really get top billing. “The shot” is paramount.
The biggest challenge in theatre – apart from the often more intensive rehearsal processes – is “getting it” live, right there, every night, for days or maybe even years at a time. Your stamina and your ability to deliver honestly in the moment is your daily responsibility. On film, however, there’s scope for screwing up and doing it again. And if you still can’t get it right, some things can be fixed in post-production (editing out frames where you’re doing or looking crap, or going into studio to re-record audio that you and/or the sound man flubbed). Once you can deliver your part relatively convincingly on film, the biggest challenge is keeping your energy up and not going batty while you wait, and wait, and wait as they set up between shots.
For me personally, what I absolutely love about theatre is the chance to keep trying new things every time you take the stage. You have the opportunity to grow continuously with the character and the ensemble every night. You can draw different kinds of energy from different audiences, since audiences really do have distinct personalities from show to show. And you get to live a narrative arc every night (assuming of course that the narrative is linear). As Cecilia Salazar said of playing Gene Miles, the beauty for her was that every night, she had the opportunity to be born and to die, living a varied and exciting life in between. With the disjointed nature of filming, that’s a gift you seldom can enjoy.
For me, I love any opportunity to perform. But God knows I love the theatre. Everything else comes in a distant second. 😉