Both my friends-in-film and my friends-in-theatre keep asking me what are the differences when working in the “other” art form. And while there are many similarities; both use actors, lights, sound and music, perhaps the biggest difference is how each uses the actual written word.
In filmmaking, the script is used as a blueprint from which to shoot the movie. During production, scenes are further broken down into individual shots, (close up, wide shot, etc.) that will later be edited together.
Thus, cinema is entirely built (edited) from small pieces that are created during the film shoot – and not directly from the written word itself.
Theatre, on the other hand, flows live, from the beginning of the play to the end in a whole piece, alive, changing slightly every night. Sure, it is worked out (rehearsed) in smaller sections, but ultimately it is the written word of the play that sets and controls the audience’s experience.
Everything, from what the actor says, to literally what the stage manager uses to track and call lighting and sound cues from is the written word of the play itself. This lighting cue happens exactly on this exact word…
And so on…
This means that in cinema, a mediocre* script can, through the filmmaking process, and editing, be made into a great movie. There are many award winning movies that have no resemblance to the script as originally written – because they were significantly reworked in editing. It’s the old, “we’ll save it in post” work method.
In theatre however, there is no “post production”, thus if the written play is not great to start with, it becomes very difficult to take a mediocre play and turn it into a great piece theatre.
This is why there is such reverence for playwrights in theatre, where as their celluloid (can you still say that in this digital age?) counterparts get less respect.
* of course there are indeed great screenplays that make great movies too!