Stage or Screen?

I had a conversation recently with someone who loves going to the movies but seldom heads to the theater. She asked why she should consider changing her habits.

I had a conversation recently with someone who loves going to the movies but seldom heads to the theater. She asked why she should consider changing her habits. I had to think about this, because I spend a lot more time in theaters than cinemas. But I love both, and there’s surely common ground — great stories and great acting are essential to success in both art forms.

But there’s a difference in storytelling, the predecessor and foundation for stage and screen. We yearn to hear about other people and learn from what they have done or circumstances they have experienced. Movies can delve into the fantastic, using CGI and special effects that dazzle and awe filmgoers. But many are rooted in reality: Look at this year’s Academy Award nominees — The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper and Selma told true stories and portrayed real people doing memorable things. Boyhood and Whiplash were fictional but viscerally real.

Of course, the 2015 winner, Birdman, had a fantasy filter; The Grand Budapest Hotel was a comedy that amusingly departed from reality. But many recent Oscar winners have been real stories: Argo, 12 Years a Slave, The Hurt Locker, A Beautiful Mind, to name a few. Even imaginative films like The Lord of the Rings are winners when they make fantastic characters and fanciful situations seem real.

Films also attract audiences because of recognizable stars such as Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck. Many people will go see their cinematic performances regardless of the content. Stage performers are less likely to be famous, even if they’ve won a Tony (although Idina Menzel was a winner for Wicked, John Travolta messed up her name at the 2014 Oscars).

While theaters can tell all kinds of stories, they have a steeper hill to climb. They are finite physical spaces — even when they can use modern technology — and must face limitations that filmmakers overcome with big budgets and locations.

Nevertheless, theater engages people’s imaginations, and I can think of no better example than the Cincinnati Playhouse’s current production of Peter and the Starcatcher. The Peter Pan backstory began as a bestselling novel by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry.

The authors doubted it could be adapted for the stage. “I was really surprised because it takes, geographically, a big area,” Barry has said. “It’s got ships in it, it’s got flying in it, and my reaction was, ‘I don’t know how you do any of that on a stage.’ ”

The newspaper columnist and humorist has marveled at how productions of the show have been presented in “this amazing, creative and clever way so that it all happens in front of you on this little piece of wood, the stage, with just 12 people. I could not have imagined that in a million years.”

In Starcatcher, actors use tiny ship models to represent the Neverland and the Wasp; below-deck scenes are created with lights shining through grates in the floor and actors crouching and crawling; an immense crocodile called “Mr. Grin” is conjured up with two strings of triangular banners (as teeth) and glaring red lights for eyes. Characters levitate and fly; we see the tricks and still believe. Our imaginations fill in scenes and events, all the more vivid because we are engaged in doing so. This kind of theatricality cannot happen in film.

That’s ultimately what it comes down to: Live theater offers living, breathing people onstage performing for an audience of living, breathing people who respond to the stories being told, “sharing the same air,” as is sometimes observed.

No two productions are the same, and performances of a specific production can differ from night to night. Actors sense an audience’s engagement; they know when people watching are “with” them.

Stories need audiences. Of course, movies tell stories, too. But they expect the audience to come along; that exchange of air and emotion in a room makes a tremendous difference.

Shakespeare and other theater writers use “asides,” moments when a character steps away from the action and speaks directly to audiences. That can happen in movies or TV (think Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards), but it’s rare and not about connecting — it’s more a device for character revelation. In Peter and the Starcatcher, the entire cast narrates the story, sometimes as characters, sometimes as actors stepping outside of their roles.

Engagement with live performers working creatively is what brings me back to theater again and again.


CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]


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