The Stage — Acting Without a Net

Remember the high-wire or trapeze acts in the circus?

A net was strung below them to greatly reduce the risk of injury or death. In the days when safety was not as much of a concern, there was no net. Or, for publicity and to draw larger risk-loving audiences (and more money), certain performers and/or show managers dispensed with the net. “Without a net” became a common reference to anyone taking a significant risk.

Acting is not likely to kill you. But acting does have its limits and luxuries, its risks and rewards. How does acting on the stage compare with acting in film or television?

Film is a powerful medium. In a movie theater, it offers a massive visual and intense audio experience. The “big screen” — there’s nothing like it, in all of its many technical manifestations over the years.

Directors can take advantage of special effects (especially in today’s world), magnificent and exotic or realistic locations, graphic depictions, and effective editing (which is an art form in itself). The actor can rely on the opportunities for short takes, multiple takes, multiple camera angles, close-ups, and the inspiration provided by location shooting. Those are some of its luxuries. What are some limitations?

For the producer(s) and director, when the film is done, it’s “in the can.” Expense and logistics prevent redo’s or editing. By contrast, a live stage production often has script changes, song changes, and even cast changes. Feedback from audiences provides ongoing, real-time reactions that can benefit the quality of the show. And, of course, for the actor, that feedback from a live audience is the ultimate test — the ultimate judgment — inspiration and confirmation, or rejection and condemnation of the actor’s performance, immediate, up close and personal. And even that may change in some way from performance to performance.

Reviews from the “experts” for any medium always came the next day or after the fact — except now Twitter and blogs have transformed that component much closer to “real time.” However, the audience and their hard-earned dollars always have the final say for any project.

"After the show, Big Fella, there's young'ens out there."

On the stage, actors and their audiences are ever alive and interacting. It is a dynamic communication. The actor — or speaker or singer — feeds off the energy of the audience.

The film or television actor has the limitation of no live response, except from the crew. It that sense, it makes their acting more difficult. Many television series, particularly comedies, began to record in front of live audiences to get the best of both worlds — retakes, close-ups, camera angles, editing and live reaction — genuine laughter instead of a “laugh track.”

So the stage performer is acting or singing “without a net.” The show must go on. Mistakes have to be handled “on the fly.” No retakes, no close-ups, no camera angles, no editing. It’s do or die, right on the spot. They may have a microphone, but they still must project their voice and the whole of their character to a theater full of people, most of whom are some distance away.

Experienced actors cover for each other and work together to get back on track when lines are forgotten or mangled in some way, when cues are missed, or technical glitches occur with lighting or scenery or sound effects.

The stage may be “acting without a net,” but for most good actors, it remains their first and best love — because there is nothing like that live audience!

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