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All the World's a Stage
by Patrick Storck

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As an audience member, most people would not really see much of a difference between live theater and film. There would be obvious differences, like the restrictions on locations, effects, and stunts. You couldn't do a stage version of RONIN, putting a big car chase through tight European streets and making it anything but laughable. Sure, bigger Broadway shows can afford some neat slight of hand, secret passages, and large set pieces, but comparing a crashing chandelier or an on-stage helicopter to a velociraptor attack is just not fair.

There are smaller differences, though. These are what make theater so appealing to writers, directors, actors, and anybody who would like to challenge themselves.

On a film you can do several takes of a line, get coverage from all angles, and try a scene from multiple angles to create the moment exactly as it needs to be. You can go back if needed, rewrite and reshoot bits that aren't working if it's not coming off right, and make sure it's exactly what you're going for before an audience ever sees it. For every moment you get sometimes dozens of tries to get it right for that one perfect take.

In theater you have rehearsals, rewrites, blocking and set changes, but all of these changes aren't to get it right that once. You have to work towards being able to get it perfect every time. You can't hope the squibs go off each night. If they don't, there's no second take. The audience saw it and it's now a part of the reality they're experiencing. If you have a three month run, you have three months to put on that same presentation just right.

On the other hand, you have the ability to perform and fine tune the entire narrative as a whole until it's organic, it does get that consistency. You're not slowly creating pieces of a whole that doesn't find full context until months later. You also can have a bad night, in theory. If you don't quite nail it, somebody flubs lines, some prop is missing, an effect fails, you only blew it in front of one audience, and there' s always the next show. Film is the permanent record of that story, and any flaws are permanent with it.

Film has the benefit of detail and subtlety. If a character gives a knowing glance, quietly starts to well up at something, or maybe pockets some important item, you can cut to it. An insert shot will give the audience an indication that this bit of business is important, and they should note it. You make sure the people seeing your work have a much better shot at seeing exactly what you want them to see.

Stage has the benefit of environment. While separated by the lip of the stage, we are still breathing the same air as the performers. We are still there with them through this journey. We can feel them, hear their words echo off the walls, and watch them as they become and exist as this character throughout the show. There is an immediacy to the performance. As something happens we react along with the other characters. We are, though not affecting the story, involved in it, a part of it.

In performing live, one must be more broad. Your performance must be able to reach the back row of the theater. There are no close-ups, there is only what you do to make sure that when it's needed all eyes are on you. Your voice and emotion have to carry without shouting. Your movements and gestures must be fully visible without being pantomime, cartoony, or awkward.

Equally, you must be able to dip into the background when the scene is not focused on you. Through it all you need to find a balance so there's no shift as you step into and out of the shadows. You character remains consistent and believable in both noise and silence.

You also are on stage for much longer than your actual dialogue. You can't show up, perform your coverage, a few quick reaction shots, then head back to your trailer. You must remain in character the whole time, reacting to the event as they unfold, and delivering your dialogue not as well-timed words but as expressions of what the person you are representing would say at that moment.

Film by nature blows up the image. We rarely see a film where the characters are shot from a distance throughout. We're much closer than in stage, and in most theaters much closer by perception than in real life. That means the acting needs no not just come down to normal dialogue but actually inverse.

Gestures need to be smaller on film, facial expressions quiet and deliberate, and dialogue given with a restraint that holds the character's motivation but doesn't flash it loudly. You can have a wordless scene in a film, told only through the look in the eyes of two characters as they look at each other. Let the internalization come through in little things. That scene would play terribly on stage. A short knowing glance and pause would have to be well defined by the context in dialogue and action surrounding it to register at all. Otherwise it's just a stop in movement for anyone past row three. Playing to the back row or playing to the camera both take an awareness of self, character, environment, emotion, and intent. An understanding of this will only make you better.

Writing for stage is a challenge mainly because of the modern conveniences of film narration. If yo need to show that the CIA has a file on your main character, you can write in a cut to a CIA office where somebody is reviewing the file. On stage you can't. You can't jump repeatedly from one location to another without incredible space and budget, and even then most producers would pass on the script because of the unnecessary expenses.

For stage you must limit how many characters you have, how many people you're asking the audience to know. You can't expect to write for Bruce WIllis and assume they'll identify with that character because they know him from his other work. Different productions, touring casts, revivals, or just cast changes dictate that the character must inherently be self contained. An actor will put their style and interpretation into the performance, but anything important must be in the script. If the person is a sleaze, we need dialogue to express that not only is the character of questionable morality, but that other characters, and therefore the audience, sees him this way as well. The fewer characters you have, the easier it is to define each one more completely, and the better an audience will understand them.

With limited characters and locations, you're now limited in your tools for storytelling. You must find ways to advance the characters, change the situation, introduce key elements, and move the actual story forward without the aid of CUT TO: or MEANWHILE. You have to introduce characters at a moment that makes sense to the story being told, then find a way to take them to a satisfying resolution using primarily just words in under two hours, with a tiny handful of allowances for time gaps.

I can't help but think of the SOUTH PARK episode where the government went to film makers, asking them to think outside the box for solutions to a crisis. "Michael Bay" suggested a series of car crashed and explosions. When they explained that those were effects, and not solutions, he said he didn't know the difference.

For both stage and screen, directing is understanding all of the elements and putting them together in a way that best serves the narrative. If you want to be a better writer, performer, director, sound engineer, set designer, or pretty much anything in either field, you should spend at least a little time in both. You'll learn about audience perception, when something is too much or not enough, when you're losing details, and when you concentrate on details at the cost of a greater truth.


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Other Columns
Other columns by Patrick Storck:

That Should Be In a Movie

2010: A Year We Could Make Contact

Bad Movie Christmas

Suggested Reading

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.


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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.


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