Acting On-Camera vs On Stage

Written by Top Casting Director, Jeffrey Dreisbach


I am continually surprised when I hear actors talking about the differences between acting on stage and acting on-camera. What surprises me the most is the confused signals often expressed by acting teachers to their students. Let's take a look at some of these signals and see if we can draw helpful comparisons between acting on-camera and acting on stage. First, let's share some important differences between on-camera and on-stage acting.

On-stage we have the experience of three-dimensional performing. In other words, we can see the actors fully and view the exchange between actors and the actors with an audience. The audience becomes an additional cast member, so to speak, when watching a play. When acting on-camera, the actors have only each other and their environment to create moments. The audience becomes a passive observer of the experience taking place between the actors on-camera. Finally, on stage, the illusion of the fourth wall is often present while there is no wall when acting on-camera. This obvious difference affects the actor because you no longer have to reach the “back row”, while acting on-camera. Conversely, if you are on-camera, there is no reason to “overly energize” your performance because there is no audience to reach.


Second, let's talk about the theater acting process versus film and television acting. Traditionally, a theater actor might have two weeks of intense rehearsals which include a read through, blocking, run-through of the act, technical rehearsals and then opening night. None of that exists in the world of film and television. Instead of three weeks, on- camera work is closer to three minutes of preparation. Therefore, many stage actors feel insecure when auditioning on-camera. It's as if they don't trust their training and education because of the limited processing time allotted them. Although you can prepare quite a bit for on-camera acting the process is just different. Another element that actors need to think about is the shift in focus that is needed on-stage versus what happens to that focus when on-camera. Because you have only a small frame for on-camera acting the shift in focus has to do with energy, intensity and limited movement while maintaining the proper eye-line. Stage acting, on the other hand, requires a different physicality, energy and focus with another actor. Your body language and your connection with each other, although equally important in both mediums, requires a different perspective depending upon the work that is being created. Finally, when working on stage, the actor has plenty of time to become familiar with their surroundings. Working with a set, incorporating their blocking and becoming comfortable with the environment is quite useful. When acting on-camera often there is no real, “getting acquainted” with the surroundings. The actor might feel as if they are being plugged into the environment and must show that they're comfortable whether they are or not.


Third, it is valuable to be specific about how to approach the work on-stage or on-camera. Let's take the example of an actor giving a monologue on stage. If you are another character on stage listening to the monologue, the usual direction is quite clear. You must provide focus to the other actor. This is considered good stagecraft. If the same monologue we're being performed on-camera with another actor in the scene both actors must be actively participating in the monologue even though the supporting actor doesn't have any words to say. In other words, on-camera acting requires constant acting (listening, reacting, processing). Being neutral has no place on-camera unless asked for. Even when auditioning for film and television, there is no blocking. The audition itself consists of you being rather static most of the time. In a stage audition there is an unwritten element that you have more freedom of movement--Just some of the ways there are distinct differences between the two mediums.

Now that we have talked about the differences between acting on stage and acting on-camera, let's mention the similarities. It is essential that the actor prepare their work in the same way. There is no real difference between how you play a part on-camera versus how you play apart on stage. This may come as a surprise to some actors, but in reality, focus, attention, behavior are all elements that can produce a solid performance in any audition. One of my favorite acronym’s is PIRR. This stands for plot, intention, relationship, reaction. Using PIRR for your preparation, weather on-camera or for a stage role, is an excellent foundational habit to get into. Putting together these similarities while understanding the differences can help provide creative adjustments. The actor is now empowered to use unique choices in each of these mediums.

One exercise that I think might be helpful is for the actor to work on their theater monologue and then record themselves on video as if it were a self-tape audition for film. Performing with the same material would become a valuable exercise in understanding, and ultimately, embracing the differences. Another favorite exercise would be to translate a television or film monologue into a theatrical monologue. Once again, the experience of the environment and medium can produce meaningful results.


Ultimately, the best thing you can do for yourself is to not stress over your approach to acting, whether it be on stage or on-camera. Knowledge is power. As new opportunities become available to you, your confidence will grow with this newfound understanding. Keep it real and you can’t go wrong.


Break a leg!

Jeffrey Dreisbach, Casting Partner,

McCorkle Casting Ltd and Podcast host of “Casting Actors Cast”