You’re a Film Student? Go See a Play!

Among some film academicians, including one or two college professors I’ve talked to who shall remain nameless, there seems to be a strange attitude that film and theater (or theatre, but honestly who cares) are completely different and unrelated to one another. Quite to the contrary, films like His Girl Friday (1940), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Pygmalion (1938), Oklahoma! (1955), and many other great films were all adapted from stage plays; often using stage-trained actors. Okay, you’re thinking, maybe actors and screenwriters should watch plays, but what if I’m a director? All the more reason why you should see a play!

Have you ever heard someone say that acting ability doesn’t matter as much in film because the editor can cut each scene to make it seem good? That isn’t as true as one might hope. Editing can help, but it can rarely perform miracles.  So, why should a film director watch a play? It will make you better at recognizing good acting. If an actor’s performance can grab you from 30 feet away, just imagine that performance with the use of close-ups and well-paced editing. Admittedly, most film students have a rather small pool from which to cast actors/actresses, but if you ever do trip over a good actor/actress at least you’ll know him/her when you see him/her.

Don’t believe me? Want proof? Try this:

1. See a play reputed to have good acting. If it really did have good acting, go on to step 2.

2. See a play in the same genre that is reputed to have bad acting.

3. See a movie version of one of these plays.

You should notice several aspects in common (good and bad) between the styles of the play actors and the movie actors which would allow you, as a director, to distinguish what will or will not look right on screen.

Another reason to see a play is to gain a better appreciation of dialog. There is a tendency for modern filmmakers to avoid dialog as much as possible – except in “mumble-core” style indies. But the, all too common, use of dialog for venomous arguments in melodramas and cliches in action films or comedies (viz., to the villain: “you’ll never get away with it!” and after falling down with a loud crash: “I’m okay”) as one-liners to ratchet up some easy tension is very limiting to the writer and repetitive to the viewer. Most stage plays, that I’ve read and/or seen anyway, tend to put a great deal of thought into dialog. Admittedly, the increased amount of dialog found in plays is done partially through the necessity to fill time. But I’m getting into a whole different topic here. I’ll write a post about dialog some other time and go into more detail.

The point is, film students are drama students too. As such, becoming experts in all the forms drama can take will improve their craft.

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