Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"Stagecraft Vs. Screencraft"

 When the onstage Oscars presenter announces the winner for Best Actor or Actress, somewhere in America an editor is smirking.

We’d had an uneven experience, attending two theatrical productions on consecutive nights.  Alone a daunting L.A. accomplishment due to the cautionary word:  Traffic.  No new freeways built in fifty years; ten times as many people driving the thoroughfares. 

Message to The Easily Frustrated:  “Stay home.”

We didn’t.  Because we’re courageous.  And also desperately bored, television being, um… is it possible they miss me?  And jettisoned others of my comedic ilk who could arguably do better?

Just wondering…

Anyway, seeing two plays in rapid succession brought to mind the identifiable contrast between stage acting and acting in movies, which is not just “different”, it’s easier.

“Easier”, mostly.  Though not, admittedly, entirely.

Notwithstanding our minimal enthusiasm for the first play – Dry Land – even there I nonetheless marveled at the actors’ ability to remember all their lines in the correct order, plowing admirably ahead – sans intermission – without a single, “Can we stop for a second?  I forgot where we are.” 

There was also, as we sat watching, credible, escalating character development.  We witnessed the emerging “take charge” maturity of the teenaged character facilitating the “do-it-yourself” emergency pregnancy termination, and the escalating discomfort of teenager in labor.  (I think this play seriously got to me on some level; I can’t seem to stop thinking about it.  And not just because of the ninety-eight dollar – for two – ticket price we coughed up to watch a simulated abortion.  Although Dry Land may have lacked sufficient insight and layering, it still somehow viscerally hit home.  Now, returning gratefully to the point…)

Why do I say movie acting is easier than stage acting?

Because it is.

And wherefrom my sustaining evidence for this contentious conjecture?

Wherefrom right here:
More stage actors are dying to do movies than there are movie actors are dying to do plays.  And it’s not about money; big stars can score financially anywhere.  They just don’t want to do theater.  

Movie actors may pretend to want to do theater, encouraging approaching playwrights to “Call my agent”, then hurriedly instructing their agents, “Tell them I’m busy.”

The writer you are now reading asserts – with neither assiduous research nor anecdotal corroboration, he just believes it to be true – that the majority of movie actors are frankly terrified of going onstage, minus the movie world’s comforting “protection.”  Bad enough stage acting requires you to memorize your whole part at one time, there is no rescuing “Take Two.”  What you do is what you did.

Also, unlike theater, whose action proceeds seamlessly from “Curtain up” to “Curtain down”, movies are shot piecemeal, dozens of scenes – as well as alternate performances – yielding hundreds, possibly thousands, of (now) digitally-recorded fragments, later scrupulously assembled, conjuring the magical illusion of natural continuity. 

Movies – and, to today’s point, performances – are made – and regularly “saved” – in the editing room.  Hence, revisiting my opening sentence, editors are going,

“Mr. ‘Best Actor’?  You ought to see what we cut out!”

That’s how movies work.  “Best Performance” on the screen – a revealingly alternate scenario on the cutting room floor. 

“BEST ACTOR”:  “I’m actually surprised I was that good.”

“INSIDER” EDITOR:  “No kidding.”

ACKNOWLEDGING CAVEAT (Because I’m fair):  One way movie acting is excruciatingly difficult:

For budgetary reasons, movies are invariably shot out of sequence.  This cinematic necessity hamstrings the actor’s developing “through line.”

Imagine you have an “uplifting” movie where, essentially, a sad person becomes happy.  Gradually.  It’s not like, “I’m sad; I’m happy!” – that’s a twelve-second movie.  Instead, over an hour-and-a-half or so duration, the cloud of gloominess recedes and matters begin to look sunnier. 

That’s a movie. 

The problem for the movie actor is trying to delineate that ameliorating arc when the scenes are shot disruptingly out of order.

DIRECTOR“Okay, remember in the scene we shot yesterday where your character felt a glimmer of possibility?  Well today’s scene takes place earlier, when they didn’t.  Your scene’s co-star was unavailable then, so we are going a bit “backwards.” Not back to the beginning, where you felt utterly hopeless; you feel better than that, though not as good as you felt yesterday.  And leave room for the scene we’re shooting tomorrow, where we emotionally ‘split the difference’ – you feel better than you feel today although worse than you felt yesterday though considerably better than you felt at the beginning.”

“Call my agent!  I want to do theater!”

In that regard, acting in movies is uniquely challenging.  Unlike a play, where you can gather an emotional head of steam, the necessity to generate non-sequential, instant feelings in movies is like popcorn – “Pop!” – I feel this way; “Pop!” – now I feel this way.  No bolstering build-up; you have to jump in and act.

I do not know how they do that.  I only know this.  If you stink up the place, they yell “Cut!” and you do it again.  If you continue to fall short, they fashion a credible – possibly Oscar-winning – performance in the editing room.  Which could easily happen and probably has.

The victorious actor taking their bow.

The editor applauding and grumbing, “Bullshit!” under their breath.

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