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On-Camera Acting vs. Stage Acting: What’s the Difference?

On-Camera Acting vs. Stage Acting: What’s the Difference?

It’s a question many acting students want to know: What do I need to do to start landing parts in TV and film? Unfortunately, on-camera acting is an entirely different skill set than acting for the stage, but luckily, there are foundational tools that you learn through Meisner technique that can help you master both mediums.

So how exactly is stage acting different from on-camera acting? To find out, we talked to Catherine Head, a former acting teacher at Roosevelt University who now offers private on-camera coaching sessions, about her tips on transitioning from acting on the stage to the screen.

Head says, “Good acting is good acting, but what you’re asked to do on stage does not work on camera.”

Head says good on-camera acting is very minimal, so if you’re used to acting in front of an audience, you have to learn how to dial back your performance to make it much more intimate. Here are her top four tips on how to adjust from stage acting to on-camera acting.

  1. Lower Your Volume
    “When you’re on stage, you’re broadcasting to the person sitting in row A and the person sitting in row JJ… Vocally, you have to project,” she says. “When you’re on camera, the audience is on the top of your nose.” For on-camera auditions, Head suggests that you talk to someone in the same volume that you would in real life. So if you’re doing a scene with someone playing your spouse in the kitchen, talk as if you are only three feet away from them, not 30 feet. You can even whisper if that’s what’s called for in the scene.
  2. Make Smaller Physical Gestures
    Again, when you’re on stage, the audience has to be able to read your gestures from the back row. But on camera, every little movement that you make will be noticed, so try to keep you movements more contained and more like real life. Also, if you are going to do a big gesture, such as stand up or sit down in your scene, make sure you tell the cameraman in your audition ahead of time so he or she will be prepared.
  3. Don’t Overdo Your Emotions
    “Our thoughts read through our face on camera, and that’s not true on stage,” Head says. “Acting in front of the camera is a much more interior process.” That means you need to really internalize your character and begin to think like them. What is their point of view? Why are they saying what they are saying? What are they thinking? For example, Head says if you are auditioning for the part of a lawyer, don’t just say the lines the way you think a lawyer would say them, but actually try to think about what the lawyer’s motivations are and what his relationship is to the other characters in the scene. If your character is talking to her mother, imagine talking to your own mother to make the character more real to you.“The first thing I ask actors is ‘How are you like this person? How are you not like this person?’” Head says. “You need to see the world through their eyes.”
  1. Be a Good Listener
    On stage, the audience might not pick up the nuance on your face when you’re not the one speaking in the scene. But in TV and film, you never know when the camera could be focused on your face to capture your reactions. That’s why Head says you have to have strong listening skills. “In front of the camera, your listening is as important as your speaking,” she says. In fact, Head says a lot of directors make a point of focusing on someone’s face when they’re not speaking, just to communicate emotion without words. “I always think of movies like Dead Man Walking or Phantom Thread where the camera just rests on the person’s face,” she says. That’s why you have to really be listening and be affected by what is being said, rather than thinking about the next line you’re going to say. And the more you can be present, Head says, the more authentic your reactions will seem when the camera is on you.