10 Things You Can Do in Theatre That You Can’t Always Do in Film

Anthony J. Piccione

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve written columns highlighting how theatre is a vastly different art form than film or television. I think that anyone who has read any of my past columns here at On Stage knows that while I consider theatre to be vastly superior, I also regretfully believe it hasn’t necessarily matched film or television in terms of cultural relevance, in recent years. I believe there are things that can be done to change this, and one of them is to determine what it is that makes theatre so special.

For this list, I’ve come up with just 10 things that I believe highlight a few of the biggest differences between the two art forms, and which I think are things which playwrights and producers of theatre alike ought to take notice of going forward, as they try to determine what potential theatergoers can get out of a live theatrical production that they might not always get from going to the movie theater.

So without further ado, here are just 10 things – in no particular order – that are possible on the stage that are not exactly possible on screen.

  • Audience participation – Let’s start with the obvious. Even though some kids from my generation might have been fascinated when they were very little when they looked at Dora the Explorer speaking to them from their television screen, anyone who isn’t a young child knows that it’s simply impossible to have an actual conversation with your audience in that way through film or television. In theatre, on the other hand, you can break down that fourth wall and go straight to the audience for improvised conversations that – especially in comedies or children’s plays, for example – can easily enhance the excitement and entertainment value for theatergoers, making for a highly memorable experience.
  • Improvisational performances – On that same token, you don’t need to break the fourth wall to be able to make things up as you go along. More often than not, when actors have even just a bit of room to add something new as they go, it can often make for some hysterical theatre. While film fans will note certain examples of great performances with improvised bits that were filmed on camera (i.e. Heath Ledger’s Joker clapping in the jail cell in The Dark Knight), no such examples can beat the thrill and the unpredictability of the truly improvised performances that happen right before your eyes on stage.
  •  More artistic freedom beyond the text of the script – Perhaps this is just my own personal observation, but as someone who has spent plenty of time looking at both stage plays and screenplays (and keep in mind, I’m talking about the pre-production draft of a screenplay), I have noticed that in the directions included screenplays, there is often not as much room for interpretation as the often minimal stage directions in plays written for theatre. For directors, this can especially be a good thing, as it allows room for more creativity and more ability to add something to a final vision that maybe the writer hadn’t initially thought of, but actually makes it better. Personally, as a playwright who has had such experiences, I find that as long as it doesn’t mess with the core intent of the play, these can easily make it worth it once you finally get to watch it performed with your own eyes.
  • Great spectacles without CGI – Some might find this one to be disputable, but personally, I find that MOST Hollywood films nowadays rely overly on CGI to keep audiences on the edge of their seats during what is supposed to be a massive spectacle. (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay.) However, to create a grand and memorable spectacle in theatre, all one needs are lots of performers who know how to sing and dance on stage, preferably on one with excellent lighting and a stunning set design.
  • Intimate settings that make performances more likely to keep audiences engaged – On that same token, it’s also possible in theatre – and not necessarily in film – to engage audiences in your story by being much closer to them in the theater, thus making them feel more like they are part of the experience. By doing so, it also might be easier to get powerful reactions out of audience members in a way that is not necessarily possible otherwise.
  • Find more actors that are more likely to give a damn – That’s not to say that there aren’t film actors who don’t take their craft seriously, as most of them do. Nor am I saying that there aren’t theatre actors who are simply in it for feeding their egos. However, generally speaking, one of the things that always kept me drawn to the theatre community is how at all levels of theatre – for the most part, anyway – they are there for their mutual commitment to their craft, unlike some certain famous film actors who shall remain nameless that are just there for the fame and money, it seems.
  • Getting away with more theatrical and over-the-top performances – As someone who has always had a flair for the theatrical, I usually enjoy my performances in theatre most when they are big and melodramatic, at least to a certain extent. However, I’ll admit that this could come across as cheesy and perhaps dull in film. Yet in theatre, I find that audiences are often more likely to accept such styles of acting.
  • Be more successful at forcing the audience to use their imagination – In theatre, as long as you have a stage and your audience has an imagination, you can essentially get them to believe that you are taking them to whatever world you choose, when you are putting on a show. That may be a considerably harder task in film, when realism and maximalism are seemingly always expected.
  • You can literally see or create theatre anywhere – It’s kinda hard to just create a film that you can instantly watch in whatever area you choose, given the amount of equipment you’d need to achieve such a goal. But as long as you have a group of actors – even if it consists solely of yourself – you can create theatre anywhere, from the stage to a museum to the streets to anywhere in-between, and potentially find an audience that will enjoy whatever sort of performance it is that you have to offer.
  • If none of these can convince you, just watch a theatrical show and compare it to the film adaptation – Most die-hard lovers of nearly every classic Broadway show that has been adapted for the screen knows what I’m talking about. The theatricality and the spectacle of the original live production of a show is nothing compared to the version that hits the silver screen. Even if a film adaptation gets nominated for an Oscar (*cough*Les Miserables*cough*) it can never beat the Broadway production that started it all.

Anything else that you’d like to add to this list that you didn’t see here? Be sure to weigh in below in the comments section.

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Student, playwright, actor, poet and blogger currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Anthony and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione).