Americans love a good show. Whether it’s in the form of a movie, television program, or live production, entertainment looms large in our lives. However, some key differences distinguish plays and musicals from their prerecorded cousins. Let’s review five differences between stage and screen production that help shape the unique properties of each art.

Less Subtlety on Stage

The movie audience may be watching on the silver screen, stationed in front of their big-screen TV at home, or even taking in a movie on their smartphone. Regardless, the cameras and microphones are seldom far from the actor. That allows for more subtle gestures, movements, and voice modulation. Meanwhile, stage actors often have to “play to the back of the house”—they need theatergoers far from the stage to be able to see and hear them.

Different Approaches to Lighting

Another difference between stage and screen production lies in how we light each one. Whether the cameras are rolling or actors are playing to a full house, they’re under lighting that looks a lot different from what illuminates your home. While studio lighting must accommodate the sensitive lens of a camera, stage lighting acts in service of the human eye. Warm and cool tones can help set a mood for the audience, and bright lighting can ensure that the entire audience can pick up on facial expressions and subtle movements. Lighting is also critical for helping the actors look their best. Finding the right lighting for different skin tones is a nuanced art that makes the most of a production’s onstage talent.

Actors’ Medium vs. Director’s Medium

Live theater can be beautiful, but it’s also fragile and ephemeral. No one can yell, “Cut!” on Broadway. There’s no CGI on the proscenium. If something goes wrong, you can’t fix it in post. While a great director is invaluable to rehearsals, live performances, in a sense, belong to the actors and actresses on stage. Once the curtain rises, the fate of that night’s show is in their hands. Not so on film or on TV. The director exercises much greater control over the outcome of a movie, while television shows are ultimately in the hands of their showrunners—the writers and producers who oversee the long-term vision.

Time Is a Construct on Screen

Think of the shows you watch on TV. Minus the occasional flashback sequence, time is linear on screen. It’s anything but linear in production. Actor availability, weather conditions, and other factors determine the order in which directors shoot their scenes. On stage, such an out-of-order approach would be too postmodern for most theatergoers. Live shows begin with Act I, Scene I, and go from there—rain or shine.

Tradition! Tradition!

Even with remakes becoming all the rage, television and film still require a surfeit of new content every year. However, the stage isn’t afraid to draw upon a rich library of established works from Shakespeare to Mamet. This means the audience, eminently familiar with the show they’re about to see, may enter with expectations that viewers of a new movie will not. That could place additional pressure on the actors to meet those expectations. Of course, whether on stage or screen, every actor intends to give nothing less than their best.