At drama school classes in screen acting are an important surprise. The big and little screens are continuing to become more prevalent mediums and, as they grow, they’ll offer more opportunity for actors. With the difference in pay checks being so vast between screen and stage (£5,000 for twelve days of TV or twelve weeks of theatre), it seems likely that at some point even the most classical actor will need to make, or want to make, the leap onto the screen.

Herein lies the question I’m posing: do drama schools provide adequate training in ‘acting for screen’? I can’t speak for every drama school but certainly the teaching provided at mine is excellent but minimal.

In one term we had six voice classes a week, but less than six screen‐acting classes in total. Though the course is constantly being expanded and updated, why is such an important medium left so unexplored?

Brace Yourself

Even as children most of us will have, at some point, attended, or been forced to attend, a local amateur youth theatre group – the stress very much on it being a theatre group. These can be wonderfully camp and twee introductions to stage performance. But, as far as I know, very few youth theatre groups offer courses in ‘acting for screen’, which makes it so much more of a shock when it comes around at drama school.

I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same for a long time: surely acting is acting whether your being watched or filmed? Well, yes and no. Much as you might scale up or down a performance depending on whether you were playing to nine or nine hundred, so you must do the same for the camera.

I’ve found it a difficult idea to get my head around; essentially you’re required to do less physically but with as much, if not more, intention. As Alan Rickman said: “On film you put all your energies into a single glance.” The trial and error process of learning creates mixed results though as you find yourself looking like a robot in some shots, and like a pantomime villain in others.

The Performance Itself

Once you’ve mastered the size of your performance, you then have the performance itself to consider. When rehearsing for a play you might spend weeks experimenting with different character choices, discussing them with fellow actors and directors, before eventually settling on something a few days before the first preview. Even once you begin performances there is still scope for play; Mike Alfreds, for example, as the title of his book suggests, likes a performance to be ‘different every night’.

The cost of producing screen work means that there isn’t the same freedom for discussion. You are required to bring to set, in actuality the first audition, a finished and rounded character. The director might tweak a performance here and there, but is more likely to be interested in making sure they’ve got enough coverage of a scene - and you might never have met your fellow actors before you begin shooting. 

As for being different every night, or every take, there is little chance. Continuity means that physical actions need to be accurately reproduced, take to take, for the sake of the editor.

Should We Be Doing More?

It’s definitely a skill in it’s own right and one that deserves attention at drama school, perhaps more than it’s getting now.

In many ways its absence is understandable; it’s a comparatively new medium, and one that is always developing. We also shouldn’t forget that it could cost a fortune; to film, review and edit work requires a fair amount of equipment, which isn’t always cheap. I’m sure I’m already getting more than I paid for when I do twelve‐hour days!

That said, with it becoming such a necessity in the industry, if you want to earn a decent wage, there should a reflection on its place in training. Even if the school itself can’t provide the required resources there are surely collaborations to be had between drama schools and film schools? There must be young directors needing actors and as much as young actors needing experience?

But then, for it to have a bigger role in actor training, what must be sacrificed? It’s not for me to decide if two years of tap‐dancing is too much or if music theory classes are unnecessary; though for the record, as much flack as these classes take, I wouldn’t swap them... probably.

I’m sure it’s something that is in the process of becoming more prominent anyway, but perhaps the changes should appear more quickly.