There are three major platforms for actors: stage, film and television. Decades ago, it was relatively rare for actors to successfully crossover between these mediums. Instead, most actors would establish themselves on the boards or before cameras and largely stay in their lanes for the rest of their careers. However, those days are long gone, and many actors move freely between mediums, enjoying the unique artistic experiences each one provides.
That said, every actor needs to begin somewhere, so here is a guide to help new actors understand the major differences between working in stage, film and TV and which medium, or mediums, might appeal to them most.
New York and Los Angeles are the two main acting meccas in the U.S., but they have little in common other than their thriving entertainment industries. The weather, culture, rent prices, transportation systems and professional opportunities in each city are very different, and actors should consider which location fits their personality and career aspirations before booking a plane ticket and signing a lease.
The Big Apple is the unrivaled king of stage, with more than 40 theatres on Broadway alone. While there are plenty of stage opportunities in L.A., New York’s storied theater scene still isn’t rivaled on the West Coast.
The City of Angels is the center of the film universe, and actors who aspire to a film career will find the most opportunities there by far. However, New York is a good secondary location for film hopefuls who prefer the vibe of the East Coast.
Again, L.A. is the most desirable location for actors who dream of breaking into television, but many TV dramas film in New York as well. Also, cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago and Atlanta have strong television production industries, and actors may feel more at home in these locations than L.A. depending on proximity to their family, work and more. However, L.A.’s pilot season will draw most TV hopefuls to the the city at least once a year due to the volume of casting that takes place.
Theatre actors play in front of a live audience, which greatly impacts their performance. Patrons in the back row cannot hear quietly read lines or see subtle expressions or gestures, meaning an actor must put on a performance large enough to fill the space (often larger than life). Stage audiences also give live feedback, which actors can feed off of, both for the good and for the bad.
Cinemas have massive screens and top-notch sound systems, which means the slightest facial expressions and softest whispers can be seen and heard by film audiences. As a result, film acting offers a platform for very nuanced performances – the smallest bit of overacting is difficult to overlook when amplified by cameras, microphones, lighting (not to mention the score and digital effects). Actors also have to wait months, or sometimes years, to see an audience’s reaction to their work, which can look much different than they expected due to editing and other post-production additions.
Over the past couple of decades, television has become much more like film in terms of its acting requirements. Movie-quality production values paired with big screen TVs mean that many television projects need the same less-is-more approach to acting that film requires. Unless a show is filmed before a live audience, which is increasingly rare, TV actors also typically wait months to experience an audience’s reaction to their work, which can feel isolating.
Schedule and Pace
Actors working in theatre productions usually go through substantial rehearsal periods that allow them to familiarize themselves with their character, thoroughly learn their lines and bond with other cast members. Once the production goes live, they get the chance to perform their role multiple times, growing and learning with each performance.
Although dependent on a movie’s budget, production schedule and director, most film actors may get little or no dedicated rehearsal time with the rest of the cast. They also work notoriously long hours that can start at odd times and be filled with lengthy periods of downtime between scenes. Some movie productions can also require actors to go on location for weeks or months, which can be exciting but can also cause lifestyle disruptions.
TV actors tend to work at a much quicker pace than film actors do, with several pages of script going before cameras each day. They also generally work fewer, and more regular, hours than their film counterparts. Sitcoms, in particular, are known for having comfortable shooting schedules that allow actors more personal time.
Because of theatre’s repetitive nature, stage actors get extremely familiar with their characters and the script as a whole. The most successful plays and musicals require acting companies to put on hundreds of performances each year, and audiences can become attached to certain portions of the dialogue, meaning that mistakes aren’t easy to hide and improvisation is impossible. Some actors love this familiarity, while others may become bored after a while.
In general, film allows actors much more creative freedom than stage productions. Depending on the goals of the script and the personality of its director, a film role could demand that an actor stick strictly to the written page or improvise huge parts of the script. However, in general, there will be limited changes to a film script once production begins and actors will usually have ample time to prepare for each day’s shoot.
Unlike film actors, TV actors get to spend several episodes, and sometimes several seasons, exploring their characters. While the director is king in film, TV is a writer’s medium, and an actor’s ability to influence the direction of his or her character varies greatly depending on the needs and personality of the showrunner, who is often the head writer. TV scripts also tend to be written fairly close to an episode’s filming dates, so it’s common for actors to be presented with line changes on the day a scene is shot.
Each actor is different and may enjoy different acting platforms. However, the only way for an artist to truly know what he or she likes, and understand where his or her greatest talents lie, is to embrace new opportunities and give every acting medium a try.