From Stage to Screen

By Orestes Kouzof

Film and Theatre may walk hand-in-hand down the lane of audiovisual entertainment, but that does not mean they are similar: each is a different discipline with different - written and unwritten - rules and difficulties, and each has the ability to be extremely powerful - both as a vessel for meaning and as a tool for entertainment. But what happens when we cross the wires? Oftentimes Film-makers think that simply filming a great stage production makes for a similarly impressive movie, an erroneous and dangerous assumption. This guide aims to provide budding Producers and Directors with some hints and tips on transferring a stage play to the screen, so read on as we have a romp through the 5 essential areas of Production that will make sure your stage play translates!

1) Visuals

Hands on Directing for Film and TelevisionFilm and theatre, although dealing in the same currency, have very different methods with which to grab an audience's attention. In the theatre aural cues direct the audience to one part of the stage or another - we frequently hear a character entering or speaking before we've even noticed they're there. In film, our attention is directed by our vision - what the screen shows is what distracts us, what grabs our attention and makes us focus. Because of this, one has to be careful when transposing theatre to film. A voice heard 'off-stage' is not the same as someone talking off-screen, simply because the fact we can't see them on the film means that they are not as important. In the theatre, a vocal presence but physical absence has a much more powerful effect. In the event you want your film character to be heard but not seen, it's always advisable to perhaps change the shot, or show a concealed version of the speaking character.

2) Perspective

One of the downfalls of theatre is the difficulty with which the audience's perspective of what's going on on stage can be changed. The 'fourth wall' - the imaginary barrier between actors and audience can be broken, but almost never moved to a different place in the same room. In film, different shots allow the film-maker to explore relationships between objects and people, to zoom in and zoom out, to focus on objects. For example, a stage version of Shakespeare's Hamlet would have difficulty in making the audience focus on, say, the poisoned chalice from which Queen Gertrude accidentally drinks. In film, the Director can make a decision to have a close-up of the bottle, even a close-up of the poison as it dissolves in the wine, making sure the audience are completely aware of the dangers and possible repercussions of the situation!

3) Location, Location, Location?

In his 'Poetics', Aristotle writes on the need for a 'unity of time and space' in the theatre - meaning that a stage play should only take place in one location, over the amount of time it takes the play to be performed. This theory prevailed in the theatre up until the past the Renaissance, and it is still evident today, if not for respect for the Ancient Greeks then for reasons of practicality - there are not many theatres that have the technological abilities to convey a variety of locations in realistic detail. The film-maker, on the other hand, has complete artistic license over the locations of his movie. One scene needs to be at the top of the Eiffel Tower? No worries, let's cart the camera up there. The very next one has to take place in the catacombs beneath the floorboards of a small Parisian cafe? Again, take the gear and hunt! When transposing a stage play into film, you can take that artistic license and use it to spice up the production a bit.

4) Acting

It may seem like a bit of a dubious distinction to make, but acting for stage and screen are completely different beasts. On stage, an actor has to become a character for the duration of the play, and the mark of most good actors is the naturalism with which they deliver their performances - even in cases of the 'heightened' naturalism that is needed for extremely big venues. Now here's a dirty little secret about film: the camera lies. The camera sees like the brain, not the eyes, and so you can use interesting shots to create the illusion of actors having a normal conversation - when in reality they are but millimetres from each other's noses, or one is staring directly into the other's ear. Stage actors find this very hard to do - it 'feels' wrong, but on camera it 'looks' right. So, if you're going to make a film of a stage play, you're probably better off hiring film actors or training your stage actors for film - or else you might get some rather irritable stars.

5) Start and Finish

Think about your introductory scene - it's very important not only in establishing the location and time of film, but also it's general 'feeling'. Moreover, in film there is an unwritten rule of introducing the main character as early as possible - in the first shot, if not in the first scene at least. In the theatre this rule does not have as much grounding, so you may have first scenes that actually involve none of the main characters. The same thing on film, however, is confusing for the viewer as they feel 'cheated' - they have invested interest in a character that isn't important. In the same vein, you need to think about the credits at the end of your film - how will they be done? How will this affect the rest of the movie? On stage, once the play is over the actors come out of character, take their bows and go home. One of the most amazing things about film is that, at the end, the illusion is not broken, so it's important to extend your imaginary world beyond the last frame, whether that be through music, animation or even additional scenes in the credits.

Hopefully now you have the grounding to make a great adaptation! So out you go into the wide, scary world of stage to screen and flourish. In the mean time, here are some of the greatest celluloid adaptations so you can have a good old research:

Secret Honour (1984)

Closer (2004)

Marat/Sade (1967)

Angels in America (2003)

Equus (1977)

Rosencrantz and Guildrenstern are Dead (1990)

Death of a Salesman (1985)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Amadeus (1984)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)


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About The Author

Orestes Kouzof Orestes Daniel Kouzof was born and raised in Athens, Greece, where he took the International Baccalaureate and scored among the top 10% of students worldwide. In 2009 he came to England to study Drama at the University of East Anglia, after which he will be unemployed forever.  He claims to primarily be an ‘actor’, although in reality he invests in all areas of Theatrical production, from Stage Managing to Scriptwriting. Orestes also has a large reserve of Technical Theatre experience, having worked extensively at the UEA studio, the Norwich Puppet Theatre and the Norwich Playhouse. His aspirations are (surprisingly) to work in the Theatre and to learn how to do a backflip on skis. Neither has been realized to date.

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From Stage to Screen