Theatre is unique among the visual mediums. It’s a one-off, one-time, one-chance expression. Wednesday night’s audience sees a completely different, completely unique performance that can’t be reproduced, altered, or “post-produced”. This is the true magic of the theatre – it lives and breathes and is bound to the most basic laws of human activity: no single person can do the exact same thing the exact same way twice. The actor on stage, in contrast to the actor on screen, breathes new inspiration and improvisation into every single performance. The broad strokes might match up, but the finer touches, the subtle nuances, the sheer reality of the performance remains in constant flux.
It’s easy to call that an obstacle or a limitation; the most obvious trait of the theatre that film and television has seamingly evolved beyond. Film has many takes, many chances, many angles, many microphones, and (hopefully) a skilled editing team that all work in tandem to produce the “perfect” performance from the raw materials. The actors, though, do the same thing as their colleagues on the stage, and unique differences, however subtle, creep their way into each take. It is the job of the film director, the script and continuity supervisors, and ultimately, the editors, to extract the “ideal” from the unpredictable, the imperfect, or otherwise “human”.
This is the fatal flaw of performances on screen. They are not truly real, no matter how close the shot, no matter have quiet the voice, no matter how inspired it appears. It is simply a collage of the finer moments of an otherwise random, chaotic, and improvised performance.
No screen star could replicate his or her on screen performance start to finish in real-time. It takes a dedicated and specialized team of professionals to make the imperfect actor appear to deliver the perfect performance.
Thus the stakes are higher on stage, for there are no editors to cut and paste the performance, no director of photography to produce the perfect image, no sides in the pocket, no time to think, and there is absolutely no getting it right.
It’s the true beauty of the theatre. The actor versus the audience, with nothing but their words, their wardrobe, their presence, and their convictions to convince the live audience that those tears are genuine, that cross was motivated, that pain is real, and that kiss was Earth-shattering. The illusion is much more vulnerable to corruption by the audience member’s inherent common sense. Suspension of disbelief from start to finish is the daunting task that film gets to navigate its own way towards.
On stage, it forever hangs in the balance.