• Rashid Salleh

5 VALUABLE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THEATRE, TV & FILM ACTING

I’ve always been asked by friends and acquaintances as to my preference when it came to acting in theatre, tv or film. My answer would be the same; Theatre to hone your skills, TV to make the money & Film to see a much bigger version of yourself on screen!

I would like to add that some people would put TV commercials as part of their repertoire of acting skill sets. To a certain extent they may do so but, personally, it is a bite-size experience that must be added to a longer format to truly test yourself as an actor. It’s like going to a fast-food restaurant, trying out their drink and then telling people that you know what it’s like to have fast food. It’s just not the same.


Also, with social media in the forefront, there are some notable acting talents that have gone on to do TV & Film and with it the fame and (some) fortune as well. It is another platform where acting has become an avenue where it can be lucrative for the younger generation. Although purists may be provoked by the fact that acting has been ‘compromised’ by social media, I do feel that it is another way to showcase yourself, whereas prior to this, you would need to audition or know someone from the industry to get a look in. Whether it is good or bad, the most important thing is that the opportunities for younger actors to express themselves and shine is so much better than ever before.


Having been exposed to theatre acting from a young age with, notably, The Actors Studio & Instant Café Theatre (two very different types of theatre experiences in itself), TV acting in the form of sitcoms, series & telemovies and the odd film here and there, here are 5 valuable differences between theatre, TV & Film acting that I will share through my own experiences.


1. Location, Location, Location

This is the most obvious difference being that Theatre acting is based on a stage and performed in one location. TV & Film acting requires indoor & outdoor locations.

In theatre, there are a few types of stages. Where you may be used to seeing a theatre-style seating where the stage is in the front with audiences seated in rows watching; there is also the Black Box. A Black Box stage is usually a smaller venue, where the audience could be placed all around a square floor or stage where the play would be performed with limited props and smaller audience. This is certainly challenging since the way you utilise that space as an actor (with guidance from the theatre director) is crucial in drawing in the audience into the play. I experienced this acting in a devised version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit in the Box at Actor’s Studio Kuala Lumpur with 3 accomplished actors, Diong Chae Lian, Joanna Bessey & Zalfian Fuzi back in 2000. We had to work around a stage space that was only around less than 10-metre square feet. With the audience so close to the actors (we could even hear them breath), the usage of lighting in the limited space played a part as well and it certainly pressured us into giving our full performance. It is very important as a stage actor that you know your space well because it is basis upon how you will perform.


Also, depending on the script, using the space that is given to you as actor, the set may not even change and if it does so, it is done in a way that it becomes part of the performance. The wonderful thing about theatre acting is that even crew members may be required to act when they are changing props on set and it’s thrilling to become part of the show in that way. One of the most memorable early experiences in theatre as a crew was pushing a bar on and off stage with Patrick Teoh and we took our roles ever so seriously!

With TV, the closest to being on stage is acting in front of a live audience and that can be an exhilarating experience. It was in an English Sitcom called Colourful Mixture (later renamed All Mixed Up), helmed by the genius of Otham Hafsham, where we recorded in front of a live audience. It was almost theatre-like with one main location set and as trained theatre actors, it’s like performing on stage with a live audience but with the tv cameras. With the sitcom Kopitiam, most of the scenes were shot on a set stage without audience but it also required us to shoot in other locations. One fun place that we spent time shooting was in Dome (doesn't exist anymore) at KLCC. Most sitcoms in the past were shot on a set stage but that has changed over time.

Of course, there are also differences between TV series & telemovies (tv movies) as well. Although you may be shooting in different locations, you may revisit the same place over the course of the shooting (it could be your character’s home or office) and therefore you will need to be familiar with your surroundings as the show progresses. In telemovies, the shooting time is always shorter and as an actor, you must be quick to learn your surroundings and apply it into your acting.


Films are like telemovies, but the main difference is that the equipment used are far superior (or at least should be) because of the nature of the screen. For both tv & film, location shooting has its own benefits and challenges due to several factors such as weather, suitability of the venue, permits, etc.


Saying that, I won’t be the first person to say that acting in tv or films involves almost 70% waiting and 20% of actual shooting. As an actor, the main lesson in shooting on location is having patience.


2. Audience

The main difference is of course, having a live audience.

Performing in front of live audiences is the lifeblood of theatre actors. Seeing audiences react while you perform is a truly unique experience and I recommend to those seriously to those wanting to pursue acting as a long-term career, to at least try it once.

As theatre actors, feeding off the energy from your audience who are directly in front of you can be motivating but also, the reverse can happen. A bad performance on stage may also elicit a negative response from your audience.

Of course, the main difference about having an audience is that in theatre, you can’t afford to make any mistakes as there are no retakes, like in tv or film. You are given that one chance to perform your role in the story as it is a live performance hence theatre actors go through a rigorous rehearsal process until they get it right.TV & Film actors have the luxury to make mistakes, but I do know many theatre-trained actors who prefer to work as if there is a live audience to give their fullest in their TV roles.


However, in the days of real film shooting (35mm), actors were required to perform to their best abilities because shooting retakes on film cameras was an expensive affair! Just hearing the films roll in the can was a daunting affair for us actors who have experienced acting in those days.


For TV & Film, the audience will only get to see your performances once it has been edited and cut and as much as you may feel that you have performed well as an actor, the director & postproduction process can have a big say in how your performances will look on screen. Or worst, you may even be totally edited out of the show. I know this as it has happened to me before!


So, the performance and energy committed as an actor is markedly different with theatre as opposed to TV & Film.


3. Voice

The ability to project your voice is one of the lessons that must be taught and learnt as a theatre actor. Because the stage requires you to be able to be heard by everyone in the theatre. Some theatres are built with great acoustics therefore your voice would not have to strain to be heard. But all the same, the ability to adjust the volume of your voice is a skill that only trained theatre actors can master. Imagine having to ‘whisper’ in front of a live audience so much so that the farthest audience member can hear your words. It is no mean feat.

Nonetheless, there are musical theatres which require the performer or actor to don a wireless microphone as they would have to project their voices alongside music. This does not mean that they are not trained to project their voices. In fact, they have more work to do in adjusting their voice, pitch, and melody on top of their volume to suit the music AND be able to be heard by the audience without sounding shrieky.


TV & Film actors can deliver their lines with varying degrees as demanded by a scene and is always monitored by an audio man who can adjust their volumes if needed, as they are usually given a microphone that is hidden on their persons. So a whisper can be a whisper to large point because it can be picked up by the microphone.


4. Preparation

Because of the nature of theatre and its singular nightly live performance (sometimes two per day), preparation as an actor is intense. The mental and physical preparations through scheduled rehearsals may take months or even only weeks, depending on the budget and capabilities of the actor. But going through the process, you will find out your limits and capabilities as an actor and how you interact with other actors as well.


Knowing that there’s no second chance or retakes on stage once the show has started, the level of concentration during the rehearsal process is required as an actor so that you can give the best performance on a nightly basis for your audience. It is certainly hard and arduous to do so every night, but it is a truly rewarding experience as an actor when you have gone through it all.


Although as actors, your job is to know your character and learn your lines, TV & Film actors have the advantage to switch off in between takes and being able to improvise their lines is also something that is dependent on the director. It is less intense but for action actors, the rehearsals for action sequences are crucial as it can mean the difference between life and death when shooting.


5. Body & Facial Language

The biggest lesson learnt by theatre actors who transfer their skill to the TV screens is the level in which you deliver your lines through body and facial expressions.

Whereas in theatre, the gestures made by actors would have to be exaggerated, TV & film actors need not enhance their expressions as the camera can be placed closer to them (close ups etc.)


There are theatre actors who struggle to make this down-shift in their body and facial language as they feel that they are not able to express themselves in their roles properly, but the nature of television is that you need not do that. Being able to get your actors expression up close, a little smirk or slight raised eyebrow can be seen by your tv or film audiences, but it would be absolutely lost in a theatre audience.

And I have seen TV actors who have been brave enough to test their skills on stage and find that they needed to step up and out of their boxed acting style to learn stage craft and express themselves better as actors.




All in all, there are many other skills needed to be both a theatre, TV, or film actor but this you will learn along the way as an actor and the longer you remain the in industry, the more you will learn about these differences, of course. Most importantly, you must be able to adapt and learn new acting procedures as technology has now become a crucial part in acting with green screens as well as acting with CGI involved. So, the process is never-ending.


There are no good or bad theatre, TV or Film actors. There are just bad actors. But having the skill to learn and master all, you can certainly make the most of your opportunities in this industry.