What’s the relationship between film and theater?

On the face of it, film and theater are two very similar genres. Both of them are art forms that involve human performers, for example, and both rely heavily on light and sound to create atmospheres and tell stories. And there have been many amazing films down the years which have ended up being smash hits on the Broadway or West End stages, too, and the same applies in the opposite direction.

But there are significant differences between the two genres as well. Theater, of course, relies on a live audience – while the rise in special effects has had a profound difference on each of the two genres. This article will explore both the main similarities and the major differences in the way these two genres operate.

The similarities

First off, it’s, of course, important to acknowledge that while film and theater exist in different spaces to some extent, they also have a somewhat symbiotic relationship – and the stories and scripts of each lend themselves well to translation into the other form. Many classic musicals have been reworked into films. Take Fiddler on the Roof, which began life as a musical and was later reworked into a film during the 1970s. It has since been reworked into a musical once again, produced by Louise Gund – suggesting that there are plenty of overlaps between film and theater in terms of content and form.

Musicals and plays tend to follow the same narrative structure that most mass-market films do. They have a beginning, a middle and an end, and hence many of the tricks that filmmakers have their disposal – such as the building-up of tension – can be easily shifted over to musicals. And both also rely heavily on sound: from the dulcet tones of top singers in musicals to the important dialogue of a feature film, the soundscape of both genres is remarkably similar.

Technology also has a role to play here. In the modern age, theater can be the core genre of a performance – while film plays an ancillary role in transmitting the play or musical to a wider audience. Take the example of “National Theatre Live”, an innovative British scheme in which plays are transmitted via film to cinemas across the country. BroadwayHD in the US offers a similar, streaming-style service. In this way, film can act as a mode of transmission as well as a genre in itself, and help give theater a leg up through tools of technology.

The differences

But film and theater are very different in several ways – and conflating the two could well lead to confusion and even offense from practitioners of each. First of all, theater is of course performed in front of a live audience, which alters the atmosphere altogether. Some people may object to the idea of schemes like the National Theatre Live one outlined above, arguing that while it may broaden access to theater, there is something deeply valuable about the connection between a live performer and their live audience.

Arguably, there’s something to be said for this. Natural and unavoidable feedback loops exist in a theater environment: while the days of throwing rotten food at bad performers are long gone, it’s still possible to walk out of a theater before a production ends or otherwise express your objections or opinions in a way that the live performer will still have to handle. Walking out of a cinema doesn’t have quite the same effect!

In terms of form and content, meanwhile, film and theater have their similarities as outlined above – but they are again different in many ways. Films at least have the opportunity to be less realistic through the use of special effects, and the viewer is far less likely to be able to work out what’s real and what’s not. Some theater performances, especially in the realm of musicals, are now experimenting with increased use of special effects – holograms of long-dead stars can be beamed on to the stage, for example.

But in reality, theater-goers can see the apparatus required to create these effects right there in the room with them. Their awareness that special effects are not as real as the humans on the stage is heightened, and that makes theater-goers more likely to be discerning and judicious as they watch. In a film, it’s easier to be lulled into a false sense of reality by artifice and special effects – meaning that film-goers may, on the whole, be less questioning of the culture they observer.

The relationship between film and theater, then, is complex. The legacy of sharing stories and translating them from one genre to the next is long-running and is unlikely to go away any time soon. But there are still some key differentiating factors involved in this question – and for hardcore lovers of one genre or the other, standing up for the unique advantages of each is a must-do.