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The basic definition of acting is: a performance or piece of work in which an individual who takes part in the art of film, television, theatre or any sort of storytelling method, also known as an actor or actress, illuminates a story by revealing him or herself as a character.  This is usually done by spoken dialogue or through song. 


The premier rank of achievement that acting engages is the use of modus operandi and/or an inventive discovery with the disposition and nature of the character, an actor/actress portrays.  In other words, acting requires an employment of talent.  In order to accomplish the true art of acting proficiently, an actor must correspond with the audience by placing upon them a weight of expressive situations either on stage or on a set.  To fulfill this, an actor must be one with the world; they must become incisive spectators of life in order to train themselves in both voice and body movement. 



The Acting Evolution


For all we know, acting could have developed in the primitive era.  Nevertheless, the first documents ever recorded that pertain to acting come from Egypt.  Although the Egyptians would be our first source of documentation, we do not know much about what they accomplished.  So instead, let us flash back to, yes, the Greeks.


The Greeks created huge outdoor theaters where men, wearing fascinating costumes and either comic or tragic masks, portrayed a natural characteristic of acting.  Just as in today’s society, actors within the Greek era were highly thought of.  Unlike the Greeks however, during the Roman period, performances were ridiculously depleted because actors were slaves. 


The Romans could be called “the magicians of acting” because it was during the Christian period in Rome where acting nearly disappeared.  If it were not for the fair junkies, the acrobats, mimes, and jugglers, acting could have done merely that.  Considering that acting was designed for church affairs, religious drama of the Middle Ages was an age of amateur actors.


Modern and Professional Acting


The mother of modern professional acting was the Italian commedia dell’arte.  Originated within the 16th century, the Italian commedia dell’arte was a composition of actors who preformed pleasurable and persuasive, yet unrehearsed, circumstances of common outlines.  Thomas Betterton, his wife Mary Betterton, and Edward Kynaston were famous for their naturalistic style of delivery, in England during the Restoration period. 


Commedia dell'arte



Charles Hart, James Quin, and Barton Booth were also a few famous performers of the 18th century that executed a different form of acting known as Heroic drama.  Heroic acting, a style of tragedy or tragicomedy arranged in heroic couplets, that in general was distinguished by an embellished portrayal of characters, unusual scenery, and pompous language, became a dominant type of acting during the 18th century.  Although illustrious at the time, this unrestrained technique of acting died out roughly within the 20th century. 


Acting Styles


There are several different types of acting styles that are used, such as: stylized acting, period acting and contemporary acting.  Stylized acting is a role where the actor uses specific techniques such as Restoration comedies or English drawing room comedies.  Period acting encompasses a role that occurs in a diverse way of life, era or place.  Last but not least is contemporary acting, which is mainly the style of acting seen today.  It is the acting, contemorary comedy and dramas, where the actor appears as a character that intermingles with other characters truthfully in imagined conditions.


An acting performance can be easily discussed and critiqued when looking at two specific dimensions of acting: individualization and stylization. The range of individualization of an acting performance can be determined based on how much the actor makes the performance their own (1). When playing the role of an archetype character such as the "mad scientist" or "damsel in distress" an actor can put as much or as little of their own signature on their character as they want (or as much or little as is called for in the role they are playing). When an actor has put a unique and signature twist on the character they are playing their role is said to be highly individualized. An acting performance need not always be highly individualized in order to be considered a "good" performance. Sometimes the role an actor plays requires them to be less individualized in order to work with their character's situation in the context of the film. Stylization of an acting performance can also be measured, ranging from lowly stylized or flat to highly stylized or flamboyant (1). Stylization of a performance is usually more dependent on the broad or reserved actions the actor makes while performing as well as the tone and volume of their voice. Like individualization, the amount of stylization an actor puts into their performance is somewhat dependent on the type of role they are playing and what is called for in the context of the film. Acting performances in a film such as the comedic fairytale The Princess Bride call for more dramatic stylization and flamboyancy than a performance in a film like 12 Angry Men. The former film is filled with fantasy and over the top characters which allows for more stylization, as well as individualization, to make sense and flow with the rest of the film. 12 Angry Men is a dramatic and more serious film that calls for less stylized acting in order for the audience to take the characters and story seriously.


Stage acting vs. Film acting


I suppose the easiest way to state the difference between stage acting and film acting is to say that film acting is acting normal and stage acting is simply not.  Acting on film consists of smaller more emphasized movement while acting on stage requires loud, overdone movement.  Speaking of loud, the volume for an actor on stage must be done so that the people sitting in the back of the auditorium can hear the script while film acting requires normal, everyday vocal sound. 


Movement between the two types of acting is completely different.  The movement for film acting must be precise and “on-mark,” meaning that if you roam around you will walk straight off camera.  Also, a person’s body movement for film acting is normal body movement seen in everyday life.  Stage acting, although marks are used, is slightly freer given the space of the stage or sometimes an actor may even use the space of the audience’s seating.  In addition, a stage actor’s body movements are big and exaggerated considering that the audience will not see every crease in their facial expressions.


Gestures on camera are quite small, allowing every body feature exposed to express a feeling.  Although camera gestures are small, it requires the actor to place more meaning behind their body movement considering the audience will be watching more closely.  Stage acting requires just the opposite, however, both styles of acting involve full body control and concentration.  


Below is a clip from D.W. Griffith's masterpiece  The Birth of the Nation.  This clip is a perfect example of the difference between stage acting and film acting.  As you watch, notice  Elsie  Stoneman's  (Lillian Gish)  body movements and expressions are small and still compared to Ben's mother's movements and expressions.




Works Consulted

(1)  Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction8th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008. 

Comments (1)

William Palm said

at 12:49 pm on Sep 15, 2009

this page is bloody brilliant.

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