Stage, screen and voice acting. How do they differ? Part 1 of 2.


NOTE: This is the first post in a 2-part article. Click here to read part 2!

Every actor should understand that there are significant differences between acting on stage and acting to camera. And probably every trained actor does. Similarly, there are differences between either of those forms and voice acting – where it’s just you and the microphone.

Those differences are not so widely known, among even experienced actors. Generally speaking, acting for the screen (whether it be silver, TV or computer) is more like voice acting than stage acting is. But among the three, the differences and similarities extend in three directions. Let’s take a look.

Use of voice. A stage actor, whether the theater is large or small, must project to be heard by everyone in the audience. Distance and theater acoustics also require extremely clear enunciation. Suspending disbelief, the audience quickly perceives it as “normal” speech, but it’s anything but, even when speaking in “hushed” tones or using a mic. On-camera, the actor, truly does use a normal speaking voice. In fact, some very accomplished film actors are known for scenes in which they speak more softly than a person normally would. It increases dramatic tension, but if, for example, you were really speaking to someone across the table from you in a noisy diner, you might normally speak a bit louder. In voice acting, generally, you speak exactly as you would in real life, talking to one person standing near you in a quiet room. A "full voice" is sometimes used, but generally, it's limited to animation, or commercial characters and other situations that call for a “cartoony” or stereotyped voice, or a historical representation.

As for enunciation, it’s also fundamentally important in voice acting, but should not be to the point that it sounds unnatural. That’s a fine line that usually takes some work to find.

Use of body. A theater audience member may be seated too far away to see a subtle eye movement or even a small turn of the head. So in stage acting, body movement is often exaggerated. It’s not so extreme as in silent movies (where body movement was stylized to convey intent and emotion), but it is at least somewhat unnatural, nevertheless. In contrast, on-camera the actor moves naturally. Or at least must appear to – in a close-up, fidgeting seems exaggerated. The screen actor needs to understand the camera frame and stay within it by keeping the body calm. Unlike the screen actor’s theatrical counterpart, they can inject even the most subtle facial expression and audience will see it. But overall, they stay in frame. Watch real people in ordinary conversation -- their face and body are calmer than you might expect.

For a similar reason, bodily calm is also important in voice-over, but so is movement. Talent needs to keep their mouth at a constant distance from the mic. But otherwise, body language is good. It helps with emotional expression, and movement can be reflected in the voice. (For example, your voice quivers if you shake your arm.) In fact sometimes exaggerated facial expressions also help convey an emotion. The voice actor can draw from a full range of degrees. (Except for volume ... for technical reasons, that should generally be kept consistent.)

Those are obvious differences, often cited. But there are many other differences to consider ...

Rehearsal. Depending on the theater budget and venue, rehearsal for a play may be short, but in stage work, there is always some rehearsal. (Improv excepted, of course.) This would include live TV and similar productions. But in film, rehearsal is a luxury, perhaps even rare. The actor is expected to know his or her lines, but beyond that, the creative choices, at least on the first take, the actor’s creative choices are likely to be the actor’s own.

Voice-over is more like screen acting in this respect – sometimes you get a script just minutes before you’re expected to read. What rehearsal you do (as in an audition), you might do privately.

That said, both the stage actor and the screen actor should know their lines. The voice actor has a significant advantage in this regard, but only to a point. If the voice actor is too focused on reading, rather than speaking what is being said, they'll come across as “reading,” not “speaking” – and will sound artificial. Even when there is no time to become quite familiar enough with the script, the voice actor needs to be skilled at “reading ahead.”

Speaking of preparation in a larger sense, in all three types of acting, the actor needs to prepare for the particular task they’ll face.

The script. Movie scripts and voice-over dramas (e.g., animation or games) are written the way people talk. Sentences are most likely fairly short, the way people speak in real life – because in real life, speaking in “real time,” most of us don’t make an effort to create long, intricately woven sentences the way someone can do in print. The same may be the case in the theater, but not necessarily. Even if it’s not written by Shakespeare, a theatrical script might be more poetic. The playwright might even take advantage of the fact that the acting can’t be so subtle and natural. Considering that lines will have been well rehearsed, the speech might be more oratorical, even poetic in style.

Audience familiarity. In the theater – especially if it’s Shakespeare or a classic play -- if you flub or miss a line, someone in your audience will notice. They may have read the script, or seen previous productions. You might also confuse your acting partner. In contrast, if you change dialog while filming a movie, the author will notice, but the Director might say, “I like that, leave it in.”

With an audio script, if you flub or miss a line, the client will notice. In most voice-over genres, there is no reason to speak any words other than those that were written (at least, not without permission).

But in any acting medium, an actor who is unable to “stick to the script” may find the range and number of jobs becoming limited.

Audience interest. Theatergoers pay for their tickets. They’re there to hear what you and your fellow actors (and the playwright) have to say. Therefore you have their full attention (to begin with, at least). The same is true at the movies. But on TV, your audience might be less attentive. They may even be sorting laundry, chatting or getting a beer. A video recording might be in-between – your viewer is watching the show, but, if they’re distracted, often they can go back and review that part.

The voice actor, in contrast, has arguably the worst of both worlds. The program might be free on TV. The audience can change channels at whim. And if you phrased something confusingly, or mumbled, they probably can't go back and find out what it was you said. What's more (or less), if you're voicing a commercial, they might not even be aware that you exist. (Or might be annoyed that you do!) It's the voice actor's job to gain their attention and draw them in. That's why fresh (yet realistic) choices in delivery and emotional expression are so important.

Audience expectations. Personality is a major part of any acting. It’s why you got the role. But in the theater, if the audience has seen the play before, with another cast, you have a special challenge: Make the role your own, without inviting unfavorable comparison to the actor who created the part. On-screen, the same would be true of a remake, but there are so many other changes in a movie remake, and so much time has passed, that it's hardly the same situation. Ditto in voice acting. The odds are slim that your listener has heard anyone say the same words before. Or if they have (e.g., if you're chosen as the new voice of a company's tag line), it's likely that your listener doesn't have such an emotional involvement in the change.
So, on the whole, the screen actor has more in common with a voice actor. In contrast, the stage actor may have various techniques and habits to unlearn. But they all also have a lot in common.

Click here to read part 2! What stage acting, screen acting and voice acting have in common.

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