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The Industry

Making the change from performing at the theatre to on-camera is not always an easy transition. Actress Karen Johal writes about the differences and difficulties when making the move from stage to the small screen.

I’ve worked on several shows over the years both off-broadway in New York and at The Birmingham Repertory Theatre – my training prepared me for how to work in a theatre production yet I’d always been curious about being in front of the camera. The world of television and film fascinates me. Recently my agency put me forward for various roles on the BBC series Phoenix Rise and months after my self-tape audition, I won the role of Noreen Khan. Now that I’m busy filming a recurring character for the show, I want to share my thoughts about the differences and difficulties in making the transition from stage to screen.

The set and crew

One of the main differences when working on-camera is the environment. Obviously, there is no stage and no live audience. Instead, you’re on location with cameras, sound equipment and around 100 people whose names you will struggle to remember. It takes time to find out who everyone is and what they do, but it’s helpful to look at the call sheet where you’ll see every crew member listed along with their job.

In the same way that the theatre has a set of unspoken rules everyone seems to know, film and television sets have a similar setup. In theatre, there is a director and a stage manager whereas on a set there’s a director, an assistant director and a director of photography – in both instances, there’s a team of people making sure everything comes together. Absolutely everyone has an important job to do and seeing everything in motion is similar to a tech rehearsal. There may be a lot of waiting around, which you can prepare for by bringing a book to read or your script to work on when you’re not needed to film.

Rehearsals and preparation

My first time in front of the camera professionally was as the lead in a short film called The Somasundarams. After one rehearsal we began filming the following week. I overprepared. I was eager, happy to be there and desperate not to mess up. I was compelled to work harder because I expected there to be more time to rehearse but what I’ve learned since is that rehearsal for film and television could be five minutes before we shoot the scene or it could be never. The thing to remember is that whether or not there is time for rehearsal, there’s always time to do the prep work, this can be research or journaling as your character – anything you would’ve picked up in acting classes. It may not be a lot of time but your commitment and flexibility are key.

If rehearsal time is imperative to your process then you may have to ask for it by approaching your director for more time to work on the material. Committing to a project by working on your lines or your back story before you even step on set allows you to remain open and flexible to the process.

Working with scene partners

With less time and more distraction on a film or TV set, it can be harder to focus on what you rely on as an artist. In a theatre production, a strong connection to your scene partner is something that is developed over the rehearsal period. There may not be enough time to really get to know the person you’re working with on set but going back to basics, the things we learn in acting school about listening, is something that has really helped me. I may not have gotten the time I needed to form a bond but that’s okay because it’s not about me, it’s about my scene partner and the attachment I have made with their character. It’s about listening to them and connecting to what they are saying in the moment, that moment just happens to be in front of a camera.

Filming can be repetitive so how do you find the same emotion and the same objective repeatedly and from different angles? I read a quote by Sandford Meisner in drama school and it has continued to help me ever since: “To behave truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” I interpret this to mean that I must deeply believe in what I am saying and doing by enveloping myself in the world, and this will allow me to react honestly to what’s happening. What is truthful is not necessarily meant to be perfect. Each take may need a new objective, a new place or a thought to get you to repeat the scene again and again.

The finishing product

Overall the world of television and film takes time to get used to, it’s so different to theatre but in some ways very similar. The main similarity is the work, the story, the people and the outcome and the impact it has. When you focus on the work you are doing, the acting part, the element that drives you to be an artist, everything else can be learned. You can research what every person’s job is on set, you can pick up new techniques about how to get camera-ready from classes or tips from other actors or how to ground yourself in the moment when you’re in a room with 40 people. The people there with you, the team, the same people choosing to make art and share it, they are what makes being on set no different from being in an auditorium.

Karen Johal is currently filming a starring role on the BBC series ‘Phoenix Rise’ scheduled for release in 2023. Karen has worked extensively in theatre, film and television in both the UK and US including shows off-broadway including ‘Julius Caesar’ at The Public, ‘Journey to America’ at Carnegie Hall and ‘CAMEL’ written by Charly Clive. I’ve also performed at The Birmingham Repertory Theatre in ‘Blackbird’, ‘People, Places and Things’ and ‘Mismatch’. She is represented by Shack Artists.

Headshot credit: Yellow Belly Photo

Image Credit: Jakob Owens / Unsplash