Why do film and TV actors choose theatre?

Is one medium not enough?

In the last few years, a number of successful actors best known for film and television performances have transitioned to live theatre, either for a short or extended period. There have been several notable examples on the West End, including Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance of the titular role in Hamlet, and Laura Carmichael (of Downton Abbey fame) in the leading role of Sonya in Uncle Vanya.

Theatre offers a challenge which is unlikely to be encountered in film or television; the challenge of having to express a character’s thoughts and emotions to a live audience. When actors are being filmed for something to be shown at a later date, they are less focused on the audience’s reaction, since it cannot immediately affect their performance. However, when an actor is performing to a live audience, he or she not only needs to communicate the necessary information to the audience members in real-time (the audience cannot look back upon a specific moment in the show again), but may also have to face unexpected reactions from the audience, whilst continuing with the play, without allowing it to affect his/her performance or focus.

Since the audience is unlikely to see this particular production again, the actor only has one opportunity to convey the meaning and messages of the play in which he or she is performing to the audience members.

Also, theatre performances are done on multiple days, and in some cases for very long periods of time. Therefore, actors have much more time to discover the character that they’re inhabiting, as well as more opportunity to explore the characters’ complexities and behaviour. Due to theatre’s differences from screen acting, it can show versatility, as well as a willingness to explore the wide range of roles that are available to an actor or actress.

Carolyn Alam-Nist V