Theater, Movies – What’s the Difference?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An essay on the differences between theater and movies, both aesthetic and political, and on the indispensability of theater.

Many years ago, Medicine Show Theater Ensemble was performing a piece based on Aristophanes’ FROGS. We were six characters on crisscrossing paths, exploring our psychic underworlds. When two or more characters met, a scene ensued, and when we reached an individual or collective impasse we transformed into frogs, since Aristophanes’ frogs can live on either side of the river Styx. We had been invited to present the piece as part of a festival at the University of Pittsburgh. Our performance venue was half a basketball court, and the audience was composed about equally of university people and inner-city high school students. The mostly white college crowd knew what to expect from theater and behaved accordingly, in spite of not being in a theater at all. The mostly black high school kids didn’t know what to expect, and as they caught the drift of the play, they began to comment on it, just as if they’d been at a movie. Actor Barbara Vann was the first to talk back to them, then others began to do so. The kids were first surprised to get a response, then vocally delighted. The other half of the audience was also surprised, and some members were also delighted. A few even joined in. There was never so much repartee that it overwhelmed the play: the comments were mostly germane, and our responses came out of our characters and actions, so the space between the audience and us became audible. That communication‑carrying space is always there in theater, but seldom does it become so concrete. I, for one, did not want that performance to end.

The experience of that performance of FROGS could not have happened in the movies. An obvious statement perhaps, but it has led me to ask, What are the real differences between the two? What is it we need and expect from each? All too often it is assumed that movies either have replaced, or can or will replace, theater, but this assumption cries out for exploration, for if we simply let it stand, and movie going completely usurps theater going as a social activity, we may lose a form of artistic expression vital not only to the artists who make it happen, but to our entire culture.


If we ask ourselves one question, imagining we are sitting first in a theater and then in a movie house, we shall find out how great this difference is: Do we think movies are real and theater fake? Even if we don’t really think this, we act as if we do. Does it happen this way: a theater production depends to an enormous degree on pretense. The scenery is clearly not “real”—we all know that behind the stage left door is backstage and not the splendid gardens of an English country house or the dirt yard of a rural shack. We also know we have a dinner date after the show, or an early day tomorrow—we have not planned to be so deeply affected by what we see tonight that we will be incapable of carrying on. So it is easy to say, “Well, that was just a play.”

What about a movie? The western town in the horse opera is made of painted flats just as the stage drawing room is, and there’s a painted cyclorama of the desert behind it just as there’s one of a garden on stage. When a movie shoots on location, it is really that place that is photographed. But we are not in that place any more than the actors of the movie are in the theater with us. What the camera does is treat all it sees the same. Person, place, background——once each image has been recorded on film its visual reality is the same as all the other images recorded on that film, and when they are projected on the screen they all appear equally real. Which is to say they are all equally unreal, all images on a screen. Early movies, especially the silents, did play around with “realities,” from The Keystone Kops to the Marx Brothers, and an occasional maverick like Tati still does, but The Movies have gone mostly for “production values” because that’s where the money is. They sell us their “reality” lavishly packaged, hoping we won’t notice there’s nothing there but image. But we would not go to the movies at all if we saw them in this way, so there must be something more to the experience.

A movie is seamless—it does the “real‑izing” for us, where in the theater the balance of illusion is fragile and requires a good deal of concentration from us. That is why most anyone does not talk back to the actors in a theater, but in a movie anyone can. Movies don’t listen/interact. Even if everyone got up and walked out, the movie could go on. Not so the play.

Time (and Money)

“Movies are not as tough as theater,” says Susan Sarandon. “You only have to get it right once or twice with a film.”1 Movie‑making is also stop and go, and nonsequential, and the actor is not responsible for the final rhythm or shape of the piece. The director and producer and editor have that job. In theater, the director works with the actors to shape flow and sequence, but in any performance those are, at last, the actors’ responsibility. And any actor will tell you how variable they are, how dependent on the vagaries of the day and the audience and the teamwork and chemistry of that particular night.

By the time the editor, director, and producer of a movie have achieved flow and sequence, the actors are long gone. Theater does not exist at all without the actors. Theater has no shelf life, but put a movie in a can, even if it is never shown to the public, and twenty‑five years later it will still be there.

Movies and plays use time in very different ways. Movies must be made in a severely restricted time span, and pressure to finish a shot within a given allotment of minutes intensifies with adverse light conditions or technical snafus or actors’ tantrums, because a shooting schedule is a pretty tight affair—locations and light are not available indefinitely. Money owns time, in the making of commercial movies at least, and that means time is commodifiable. That in turn shows up in many ways in the content of the films. The assumption that money is the proper measure of both time and value permeates American life, but it is reflected and heightened in the movies and the movie business. Movies are in a hurry. They have to be if they are going to make money. So what is rewarded in Hollywood is speed. The trouble with this, though, is that art will not be hurried. A great actor often has to try out many possible choices before settling on one, because she sees many more possibilities than a mediocre actor, because she understands that each choice must form part of a whole, and because she is, like any great artist, not satisfied with good enough—it’s got to be right. But movies are ruled, like all high‑stakes sectors of American life, by time and money, perhaps even more than most, and rare the movie that seriously challenges or even questions that. Theater does. It, too, is overly ruled by time and money, but theater has more time and less money, so its practitioners are readier to take exception.

Movies are a business, by and large, that shows a profit. (Or hides it, if the numbers crunchers have their way.) Theater is a business, by and large, that loses money. There’s big-time show biz, of course, where there’s also an intense money‑time ratio, but theater as a whole has always needed angels or noble patrons or government grants or quasi‑religious status just to survive. There are of course actors who think their work is done on opening night and from then on everything should stay the same, but they are not the good ones.

Movies control time. Theater frees it. A movie will always take precisely the same amount of time to run. A theater piece can vary enormously from night to night, and especially from the beginning of a run, when things are still a little loose, to the end when every cue is picked up and the fast sections have become as fast as can be. But it’s not just that a scene in the theater can crash through the underbrush one night and float or fly the next. It’s that actors and then actors and audience play ever subtler riffs and rhythms on each others’ sensibilities.

In the days of vaudeville it was not unusual for an act to perform three, four, five, or more times a day, perhaps twenty to thirty times a week for a twelve-week tour. The extraordinary daring and spontaneity of the vaudeville stars’ improvised interpolations (which often became part of the act) was built on the bedrock of countless repetitions. Where every minute counts, that luxury simply does not exist.

Further, from the audience point of view, movies take us out of time—nothing of what is shown us on the screen is actually happening. It all happened but it doesn’t happen. Theater plunges us into time, into historic or mythic or heightened or musical time, but also, insistently, into the present. Theater is always happening right now. The novel demands an enormous amount of imaginative activity from its readers, and a movie does most of the imagining for us, but the movies take us out of the present in much the same way as a novel does.


Movies direct your eye. Theater leaves it up to you where you look. You can always see the whole stage, but you can never truly see all that is happening on it. The camera is capable of showing an expanse far greater than a stage, but you have to look where the camera looks.

There’s another spatial aspect to the movies, at least in my experience, which points up another of their particularities. When I was growing up in Colorado Springs, almost every time I came out of the movies I would start walking in the wrong direction. It didn’t matter whether the movie had been shown at the Chief, which glowed southward under its neon war bonnet across Colorado Boulevard, or at the Bijou, which twinkled back from the south side of the street. I’d always walk east if my destination was west, and vice‑versa, in spite of the fact that east and west in Colorado Springs could not possibly be mistaken one for the other. Eastward were the blank story‑and‑a‑half of the Greyhound Depot, then about a thousand miles before a hill of any consequence; westwards rose the bulk of the Perkins Hotel and seven thousand feet of Rocky Mountain Front Range capped by the stone and snow of Pikes Peak. Brothers and friends found my habit amusing, the more so because I would move in the style of the movie we’d just seen—I’d swagger oozing sass (a Lee Marvin bad guy), step with quiet purpose (a cowpoke by Gary Cooper), sashay full of mischief (Maurice Chevalier on a Marseilles quay), or stumble in a cloud of love (any number of young leading men.) Striding thoughtfully or walking on air, smirking along sardonically or checking every doorway for hidden threats, after a few steps or a burst of giggles, I’d find I was lost—nothing would I recognize. Then abruptly I’d be back, blushing till my scalp tingled. Even today that rush of confusion comes over me sometimes, leaving the movies.

But I have never felt this sort of disorientation upon emerging from a theater after seeing a play. Why? The two experiences are so similar in so many ways, and plays like movies can take us out of ourselves. No doubt the applause and curtain calls of live theater break the spell for us before we go outside. Then again, theater has an outside. Movies do not. They are not specific to any place; they can be shown anywhere there is a projector and a blank wall or screen. Movies bring the outside inside; perhaps they also allow us to take the inside outside in ways we cannot from a theater.


Theater is a means. It came from ritual, and it retains the nature and purpose of ritual—to ensure good harvest, to make the sun come back again, to charm forth the love and laughter of life, to educate (which used to be called pleasing god), to focus the attention of the community or the nation on its essence so as to gain strength for a compelling undertaking, to examine myth and memory. The movie is an end, a product. From the first, it was the fascination with the movie itself, not with its subject matter, that made it such a draw. It was magic, and the quality of the early prints didn’t matter, the magic held. As techniques of movie making got more and more refined, we were by each new development, then came to take it for granted. This is not to say that a movie can’t be a work of substance, provocative, stimulating, intensely meaningful. Everyone has seen movies that are. And anyone can imagine that movies could function that way as a rule rather than an exception. But movies are a product, like a car or a TV or a stove or a book, and there’s no getting away from that.

Americans have a hunger for celebrities. Some are people of genuine accomplishment, but accomplishment has little to do with our celebration of them. The image is the thing, and often enough the image obscures the person, as when we turn it into a fantasy surrogate for our own lives. Athletes, retired political criminals, and scions of wealth are all prime meat for celebritization, but none more so than movie stars. They are constantly in the public eye, there is an inexhaustible supply of them, and their celebrity status is renewed as often as needed to sell their films or so the gossip rags can wring sensation out of their real or rumored amours, tantrums, causes, or home decor. There is, I suppose, nothing intrinsically evil in all this—no one forces people to become movie stars, and the acting they do will outlast them and finally be judged on its own merits. The danger here lies not with the nature of movies or their stars; it lies in our national habit of allowing packaged proximity to celebrated images or imagined celebrities to substitute for genuine knowledge and appreciation of their, and our own, real achievements.

Theater is much more difficult to commodify in this way as well as economically. Stage actors, as a rule, no longer become celebrities until they make a hit movie. Then their status as someone apart can be used to convince people to come see a play. But once we are inside a theater we damn near have to take the stage experience (as distinct from the stage personalities) seriously in relation to our own. Those are real people up there.

This is not to say that all theater is pure and deeply concerned with advancing human consciousness and understanding. Anyone has seen plenty of theater whose main object is the buck and which goes about that business in every bit as cynically stupid a way as the crassest of Hollywood productions. But any theater piece, from the silliest Cole Porter musical to the masterworks of the literature, unites audience and performers in a shared undertaking at a particular moment. The essence of theater is the fluid space between actors and audience. When an actor performs live in a play in front of a live audience, the thing will simply not work unless he and the audience and her fellow actors establish that rapport. The film actor’s business is with the camera, and the rapport is with the other actor(s) in the scene, with the director, the cinematographer, and the crew members. Any immediate connection or communication the movie makes with its audience is one way. Two‑way communication is indirect, through the box office receipts, mostly.


We have taken it without much critical examination in this country that movies are popular or mass art, and theater is elite. A few experiments in communal and collaborative theater in the sixties challenged this view, but by and large even the left assumes without examining the thought, that movies are mass and theater ain’t. If you doubt this, just look at the back of the book in any lefty rag—plenty of movie reviews there, but seldom a notice of theater at all, not to mention anything outside New York.

It is understandable enough why this assumption is made. A movie, if it gets distributed at all, is seen by a great many more people than ever see the most popular play. A movie can be seen by millions in a weekend. A theatrical production could sell out its house for two years and still be seen by fewer than half a million. But if masses of people see the piece, does that automatically make it mass art (or art of the masses, as it used to be called)? We can look at this question two ways: who can make each, and second, how does each affect its audience?

Who can make theater? Anyone. Not anyone can make interesting theater, and it takes a lot of practice to get good at it, but anyone can make it. A production staged for practically nothing can be illuminating, inspiring, deeply moving. Movies on the other hand cannot be made without an extremely elaborate and costly support system. The cheapest movie made today is bound to cost in the area of a quarter million dollars by the time it is done. And then there’s getting it seen. A fairly elaborate theater production can be staged for under three thousand. So theater is economically within reach of anyone, while movie‑making is not. (This is changing now, with the advent of high‑resolution video, innovative financing schemes by small independent producers, and the increasing role of film schools in providing equipment and technical help. But as movie‑making becomes more accessible, in what direction shall it go?)

Our second question is how each form affects an audience. Movies from a distance, theater immediately and intimately—we are there. We see the actors and feel them going through their changes.

A wonderful—and horrible—example of theater’s commonality: the same FROGS piece I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, though with a different cast, played once for the inmates of the King’s County Psychiatric Hospital in Brooklyn. Now we frogs did not shy away from the psychic depths in our journeys of exploration. There were encounters of intense emotion, of violence, and of the disintegration of psychic boundaries. Strong stuff. Oddly, though, in this place where we knew the patients were going through the same kinds of journeys we had made into a play, it felt as though we were speaking into a wad of cotton or trying to see in a dense fog. The faces of the audience were immobile, impassive, and silent. Nothing was coming back to us, and we had to raise our energy level to keep the show alive. After about twenty minutes or half an hour a woman got up, in her loose hospital gown, and began to dance in the large space that had been left between the inmate audience and the stage. Someone else began to sing. A man with his hands in leather cuffs tied to the chair he sat in started struggling to get up. The strangest aspect of this sudden and escalating activity was that almost none of it seemed to be in response to what was happening on stage at the moment, but rather to what had happened ten or five or fifteen minutes earlier. As we began to understand this and respond to the audience responding to us, the performance began to change. Who knows what it might have become? But the attendants got scared—there was too much response—and cut the performance short. We hurriedly discussed backstage the possibility of defying the “authorities.” We chose instead to do the final scene, in which the six journeyers came together, changed by our discoveries, and sang what we called the “Graduation” song. We did it this time with rage and grief in our eyes and voices. The patients didn’t know exactly how, but they knew they’d been robbed, and they became very agitated. The attendants had indeed created the very situation they feared. The consequences were healthy in the end—protests to the hospital directors helped change hospital policy. What is interesting here, though, is the fact that these severely isolated people, isolated from the world and from one another by their own insanities and by the drugs they were fed, had begun to create, with us, the beginnings of a community, however inchoate.

Movies move in the other direction. As Lewis Lapham has pointed out, “Sooner or later [visual] technology will make it possible to divide the American public into audiences of one.”2 There’s another big political difference. Once you have an image on film, you can control it, control where and when it’s seen, and how often, and you know it won’t change on you, have an attack of conscience or be bought off or suddenly spout nonsense. If you wanted to use a theater production for propaganda you’d have huge logistical, psychological, and moral problems but not so with film—it’s only celluloid. And film is far more useful as propaganda than theater is. Theater has been around for ages but it’s never really been used for propaganda. The medieval church tried, but it backfired and had to be banned, and nowadays we have the odd USO show or convention entertainment, but for propaganda theater is nothing like radio, TV, and movies—precisely because it cannot reach nearly as many people. But films! Think of Riefenstahl’s, Capra’s, Huston’s in WWII, and all the prepackaged, DOD‑produced footage used during Desert Slaughter and the “War on Terror” to convince us that our bombs were “smart” and our Patriots and Hellfires accurate. Which afterward, too long afterward, turned out to be just so much eyewash. But because film reduces every image to the same degree of (un)reality, if any part of it is accepted or touted or trumpeted as real, all of it becomes acceptable as real. Even if that is ludicrous.

What can be done?

Theater always needs funds, so if you control large sums, give some to a theater you love, knowing the profit that will be gained from your investment will not be measurable, certainly not in dollars. If you do not control any money but your own, but you do work for a corporation, find out if it has a gift‑matching plan, and if it does, give a gift to a theater and have the corporation match it. Volunteer to do tech work, marketing, or administration for a small theater—it will help the artists to concentrate on their art where they can’t afford to hire a staff. But above all, go to the theater. Experiment. Try different ones, and when you find one you like, go back again. Invite friends to share your adventure. Remember the play’s the thing, and it doesn’t even exist without us.


1 Susan Sarandon, interview, Boston Globe Magazine, 2/14/93

2 Lewis Lapham, Hotel America: Scenes in the Lobby of the Fin-de-Siecle (Verso, 1995), 309.

Chris Brandt

Chris Brandt

Chris Brandt is a writer, activist, translator, carpenter, furniture designer, theatre worker.  He teaches in Fordham’s Peace and Justice Program and English Department.  Poems and essays have been published in Spain, France, Mexico and the US; translations in The New Yorker and by Seven Stories Press, UC Berkeley, and the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena.

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