An Audience of One
With little rehearsal time, disjointed filming and endless repetition, acting for the screen requires intense preparation and concentration. But if you're brave enough, the experience can be thrilling, says Edward Hicks
How should you act when performing in front of a camera? Is a whole new technique required? The simple answer to this question is no: the media of stage and screen may present different technical restrictions but a good actor should be able to cope.
Of course, many of the techniques a screen actor uses in order to deliver a truthful, interesting character will be similar to those used on stage. All actors need to recognise the world that is being created in the text, whether for screen or stage, and work out what kind of character they are portraying. This can be achieved by breaking down the script, working out how the character thinks and what their history is. Once an actor truly understands how a character thinks, they will understand why that character says those lines, and this, in turn, makes learning the lines easier.
All of this will result in an actor being able to deliver a performance that is truthful to the world being created. In the case of screen acting, when actors can achieve this, the camera will capture them as they almost live the part rather than demonstrate it.
Often people talk about the importance of the eyes on screen. This is because it is through the eyes that the viewer can often see what a character is thinking. Unfortunately it is not that simple. There is a common misconception that an actor has to deliver a smaller performance for camera than for theatre.
This idea may, of course, apply on occasion but it is not an infallible rule. After all, there have been many large, heightened performances on screen that have worked extremely well and this is because they have been truthful to the world that is being created - whether a fantasy-heightened world or a naturalistic one. Remember, size is not everything; the important thing is that the performance needs to be connected to a truth.
So, preparation is key. Screen actors rarely have the luxury of a rehearsal period, but they must prepare as seriously as if they did, even though they are on their own and not in the safe environment of a rehearsal room with the director and fellow cast members for support. When a big film project does have the luxury of a rehearsal period, it is more often to do with other issues such as a chance for actors to have a read-through or an opportunity for an actor to develop new technical skills such as practising fight sequences for Bond or, in the case of Trainspotting, learning to use specialist props.
Stage actors have the advantage of being able to feed off a living, breathing, receptive audience. They also get a sense of the flow of the production once the curtain goes up on stage. These advantages emphasise the considerable difference that arises at the point at which the performance is delivered.
Screen actors have to find a way to cope with the technical requirements of a film or TV shoot. The disjointed nature of filming, the lack of rehearsal, the endless repetition of take after take and shot after shot, the sense of pressure to deliver when time is against you, not to mention the intimidation that can be felt when surrounded by a large crew and loads of expensive equipment, all combined with this sense of an all-seeing camera constantly staring at you, can obviously prove distracting.
However, actors who can arrive on set, feeling that they can actually think as their character, have no reason to feel intimidated. These are the actors who will have the ability to ignore the technical distractions, concentrate on the scene and truly listen and react in character. When this is achieved, the interaction between themselves and the other characters will feel spontaneous as the actors experience being that character in that space rather than regurgitating a predetermined set of expressions.
The actor can never be 100% sure how a scene will actually play out until they arrive on set, but if they are brave enough and open to the possibility of discovering new things, it can be extremely exciting and thrilling. It also means that the prepared actor will have the ability to cope with any technical issues that may arise because they will be fully focused and not overly preoccupied with what the camera is doing.
The final challenge for a screen actor is how to judge whether what they are doing is working, without the presence of an audience, only an all-absorbing camera that offers nothing back, and a crew too busy working to connect with the actors.
Some actors try to rely on playback (where a shot is played back on monitors), but this is not always available and, where it is, it is usually up to the director to decide, rarely the actor. However, even experienced actors can find watching themselves difficult, and even if the chance does arise, it can prove unhelpful as actors are often their own worst critics, seeing only those things that don't work rather than the things that do.
This is where trust comes into play - on set, the director is the audience and also often the only person who knows how the pieces of the jigsaw will ultimately fit together. Where an actor will only see moments that don't work in a take and wish for another chance to improve it, the director may be delighted knowing that the poor bits are not needed while the other bits, which are needed, were good.
The important thing to remember is that an actor on set is part of an ensemble - a large important cog in a massive machine, as a director once said to me. Everyone is working just as hard to make the film work, and when all the departments are pulling together, it can be the most thrilling, creative and rewarding experience.
Published in The Guardian - Stage - Guide to performing: Acting