Television: A Proscenium for the Ages
Philo T. Farnsworth 1935
In 1927, a young Brigham Young University student by the name of Philo Taylor Farnsworth became the first person to successfully demonstrate the electric television. That single event generated one of the most influential series events to occur within the American society and the world. Previous to this time, people had to venture outside of the comfort of their homes to seek entertainment at concert halls, cinemas, and theaters. Now they were subject to the wonders of the world while lounging on their living room couch, wearing their favorite housecoat. Many individuals would argue that the invention of television has had an overall negative impact on the theatre industry, for which I completely understand and often agree. But, what is often overlooked in the eyes of a society bent on finding fault in nearly anything is that the television movement has also enriched theatre, generated an entirely new style of performance for theatre practitioners to explore, and provided motivation for advancement for theater professional everywhere.
This new-fangled device spread throughout the country like wildfire. By 1946, only 19 years after the first prototype was successfully operated, some 12 million television sets were whirring in American households. By 1955, over half of the homes in the United States were equipped with black and white televisions. Nearly every American had access to action, adventure, and romance without a ticket. Again, people didn’t have to leave their homes to experience theatrics. Interestingly enough, theatre began to hold a greater charm as people began to realize the striking difference between what they could experience at home and within a seat in a darkened theater house. By proximity, there is a connection and intimacy felt between the actors and audience members while intimacy and connection is forced through close ups and camera angles through the silver screen. Each performance on stage is unique and human, no matter how many times you see the show. A television episode or a movie is recorded, perfected, and supplemented into a rigid requirement of solidarity. Film is the greatest manipulator. You can only see what the camera lens lets you see. You can only hear what the boom microphones and sound editors let you hear. You can only feel what the music and camera angles force you to feel. There is something so truly real and tangible about viewing and theatre performance. Each person takes something different from the writing, acting, and staging. Theatre is about expression, communication, and connection between the playwright, actors, technicians, and audience members. It’s a magical experience that may not be felt by some, but to those it has touched, it is unlike anything that special effects and digital editors can ever bring to televisions table.
I can almost guarantee that almost none genuinely talented actors we love started their careers and passions filming television shows. Their love of the craft began on as they performed in their middle school’s spring musical or watching their first professional theatre show with a loved one. There’s a reason why some of our most beloved celebrity actors like Tom Hanks, Helen Mirren, and Patrick Stewart, began in theatre and have returned to the stage in the midst of very successful film careers. None-the-less film has generated a whole new medium and set of challenges for theatre practitioners that have often enriched and perfected their performances on stage. One of the biggest differences between stage and film is that on stage, you only have one opportunity to get it right. With film, you’re essentially allowed an infinite number of opportunities to create the perfect moment. If something goes awry during a performance, it is up to the actors and technicians to generate an instantaneous reaction to the situation that will hopefully result in a return to stasis. You can simply send it to editing on stage. However, screen acting requires very little theatrical aid (i.e. jazz hands, larger-than-life facial expressions, and character voices). Subtlety is key. With close ups and stylized camera angles, you don’t need to put on a big show to express your emotions and thoughts. A lot of stage actors fall into the traps of “acting” rather than “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”, as Stanislavski has suggested the true nature of acting to be. Learning pull in the theatrics and react with smaller, more human actions, can truly aid actors in broadening their potential as performers. In film, scenes are often shot out of order. Unlike in plays, you don’t have the opportunity to build up to the climax. The climactic scene might even be the first scene you film while on set. This style of acting requires the actor to be incredibly emotionally available and committed while working. Actors who have film exposure learn to develop this hypothetical muscle and can employ it while on stage to being a heightened sense of emotion and connection to the play.
Explosions, ghosts, sex, high speed chases, blood, forces of nature, and magic are all elements that are generated with incredibly easy and believe-ability through the incredibly technology the film industry has access to. Things that do not even physically exist in the natural world are often more tangible in films than a character’s quick change on stage. Audience members to plays must allow themselves to remain in a state of heightened disbelief, while any film viewer can be transported into a wide array of impossible worlds with a press of a button. With that being said, the theatre world is answering the challenge of film with a vengeance. Every On-Broadway musical these days is packed with daring spectacle, unbelievable advancements in technology, stunning visual effects, risky ventures, and anything these professionals can whip out to compete with the next Box Office Action flick. Musical Theatre, often considered the more “sissy” side of theatre is emerging with groundbreaking works and performances that are literally rocking the socks off their viewers. American Idiot The Musical, The Lion King, Spider Man: Into the Dark, Shrek are just a few of the shows that have shot theatre goers into an entirely new age of modern theatre.
The Lion King
Featured Film vs. Broadway Musical
Of course film has had negative impacts on theatre, especially in this technological age, but both of these valid art forms have nowhere but up to go. Film has presented theatre with challenges and opportunities that have only generated improvement. Screen writers make movies based off plays, playwrights write plays and musicals from hit movies. There is a valuable partnership here. Though film and stage producers and professional go about their business very differently and to very varied effect, the primary goal of both is to provided entertainment and human experience to people everywhere. So, thank you to a 21 year old inventor who developed a technology that will continuously enhance the entertainment cultures of the world throughout the ages.
Constantin Stanislavski: The Actor Prepares