Communication in the Wild: Cinema & Theatre

Some consider cinema and theatre to be two sides of the same coin; others view the two as vastly different mediums. In her article “Film and Theatre,” Susan Sontag notes that “film and theatre are distinct and even antithetical arts, each giving rise to its own standards of judgment and canons of form” (24). While cinema has grown and diverted from the theatrical tradition, they’re vastly different art forms that require different levels of interaction between the audience and the respective medium. Henry Jenkins notes how cinema has transformed in a sort of divergent evolutionary manner — it complements the era of collective intelligence and can use transmedia storytelling in a way that theatre will never be able to duplicate. Manovich notes that “digital media redefines the very image of cinema” (1), and it truly does — cinema has evolved in a manner that distances itself from its humble roots — theatre.

I attended a performance of the musical Grease on Valentine’s Day in the Raleigh Memorial auditorium in downtown Raleigh. Besides being an example of media use in public spaces, a theatre performance is an event, and an example of communication as a ritual. I spent time dressing up, wearing heels and applying nice makeup to prepare for the show, even though I was an audience member, not a performer. This ritual of dressing up occurs in part with the fact that unlike the cinema, theatre is not something that one shows up to on a whim. Tickets are purchased in advance, with a wide price range that requires planning and precision (nicer seats are more expensive). The better, more expensive seats allow for a more complete immersion into the performance, while the cheap seats make it harder to be completely immersed because of the distance from the stage and the audience members in between the seats and the stage. In this, money is directly awarded — the experience granted is tied directly to the amount of money spent on a seat. There’s a certain socioeconomic status assumed of theatregoers, according to Chan and Goldthorpe; so we dress to visually match that status.

I ended up attending the last performance of the musical, which had allowed the actors to hone their performance and fine-tune it, so the production ran very smoothly. Unlike cinema, every performance is different — a show can be performed hundreds of times by different people, in different cities, at different times, so each performance is a unique experience. Cinema is frozen in time, and the only part that changes is the audience watching it. Theatre holds a timelessness that inspires the audience to interact completely with the story at that moment in time, rather than the transmedia storytelling that permeates cinema. Cinema, especially transmedia, enforces and encourages countless rewatchings to catch the minute details added in to reward that kind of discrete viewing (Jenkins). Theatre, on the other hand, promotes communication as a ritual — during the time that performance is occurring, the audience is participating in a communal ritual that celebrates the liminal story, immersing the audience and the actors in a collective experience that can never be repeated again.

Theatre most likely came about as a performance of ritual activities that did not require initiation on the part of the spectator. While little information is available about the origin of theatre (in contrast to the wealth of information on the origin of film), it most likely sprung from an oral tradition of passing on stories of the past to the younger generations. Brown, in his book The Oxford Illustrated History of the Theatre, notes that the words theatre, drama, tragedy, and comedy are Greek in origin, but there is no true proof that the origins of theatre were Greek (13). However, many holdovers from Greek theatre appear in modern theatre — comparing this Greek amphitheater to the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium (seen further below), we can see the similarities in the curved sides, stacked seating, and deliberate architecture to maximize the sound of the performance.

[picture—Greek Amphitheater:]

The seats in the auditorium are plush red velvet, and the area is neat and well tended to, unlike a movie theater where the smell of popcorn permeates everything, the seats are stained and gross, and candy wrappers litter the aisles. The way the seats are arranged around the stage and the acoustics of the space seem to attest to that — while it’s all in one room, the separation from the stage and the seating prevents interference or physical participation from the audience.

[picture—Raleigh Memorial Auditorium:]

The seating is carefully designed to try and give all audience members the ability to view the performance unobstructed by others, compared to the cinema where the camera does the work to allow the audience to view the action unobstructed. This enables the audience to pick up on unspoken subtleties important to the narrative — facial expressions, for example. The cinema relies on the camera work to allow the audience to pick up on this, while the theatre relies on elevated and careful seating to allow the audience to see the actor’s facial expressions. Sontag notes that cinema is often treated as the emancipation from theatrical acting, “gestures needlessly stylized, exaggerated — needlessly, because now the actor could be seen from ‘close up’” (24). The stylized acting was to try and ensure all spectators, regardless of seat location, could see and immerse themselves in the performance.

The lighting in the auditorium is careful and deliberate, like all the structural decisions in place. The stage is well lit with spotlights to help the audience know which place on the stage they should pay attention to, and the seated area is dark, so the actors cannot see the audience. The catwalk above the stage is hidden from view and the technical booth where the lights are controlled is also well hidden from the audience’s view. The careful use of lighting and other visual effects that guide the audience through the narrative are similar to how different camera shots are used in cinema to guide the audience and cue them in on what to pay attention to. However, in theatre, the audience is asked to suspend disbelief, ignoring wires, scene changes, fake props, and microphones. The inset orchestral area helps the audience with the suspension of disbelief by providing ambient noise in scenes without any visual distraction.

The employees also work to avoid any visual distraction — if someone is late to the show, the employees will only let them into the theater during natural breaks in the show, and they attempt to unobtrusively guide the audience member to their seat with a small flashlight. They also carefully clean the theater after performances, picking up leftover booklets and anything else to keep the area clean; a blank slate for future performances. Employees also control the lighting on the stage and scene changes in the show, helping the audience remain immersed in the show with visual cues to help keep the narrative moving. The work put into the space is obvious, and all of it goes towards keeping the audience immersed in the performance with minimal interruption. The crew that creates the set, changes scenes, and works with the technical equipment is the invisible portion of the performance, but without their work the performance would fail.

When interacting with the medium, similar rules apply to both cinema and theatre — don’t talk during the show, turn off your phone, be mindful of the people around you. Though theatre is a live performance, the audience is expected to act as if there’s an invisible wall at the end of the stage, accompanied by a sense of voyeurism — the audience can see the actors, but the actors can’t see the audience. The lighting plays a large role in this, making it hard for actors on the stage to see the audience surrounding them, while the audience can easily see the actors and the performance.

The audience is asked to suspend disbelief in both theatre and cinema, though live performances tend to ask (and receive) more of this suspension than when watching a screen. With the distance added when watching action through the lens of a camera, the audience expects more from the film, requiring that special effects look realistic and that the CGI is believable. Manovich says, “in the age of computer simulation and digital compositing, invoking this characteristic becomes crucial in defining the specificity of twentieth century cinema” (2). The characteristic he’s referring to is live action films — in the majority of the twentieth century, these largely consist of unmodified photographic recordings of real events that took place in a real, physical space. Cinema has transformed from an index of reality to a blend of digital painting (Manovich 2, 5–6).

At a live performance, without the distance that a screen provides, the audience is more forgiving of theatrical effects and false backgrounds — as long as the only real thing on the stage, the actor, is believable. While the actors address the audience/camera in both theatre and cinema, there’s a more direct — and physical — connection in theatre. The audience is even allowed to directly interact with the actors during the final bow, showing appreciation through applause, breaking the spell of the liminal connection. As Malloy notes, “the heart of theatre experience is the performer — audience relationship: the immediate, personal exchange whose chemistry and magic give theatre its special quality” (1). The personal connection between audience and performer informs us of how to interact with the medium, and encourages us to treat the connection more reverently than a cinematic experience. The reverence required can be directly linked with social class, as it’s expected that the audience must be “cultured” and “educated” in order to be proficient in the proper etiquette to connect with the performance.

There’s a social status involved in attending a theatre production — you go to be seen, and to be seen by others, while consuming the medium on display on the stage. Patrons of the theatre are promoted before the show and in the booklets provided. The booklets help prime the audience by providing a roadmap of the show, the information of all the actors and people involved, and advertisements for other shows being performed at the same venue. As Chan and Goldthorpe note, theatre is seen as an “elite” or “upper class” activity, while cinema is seen as a more “common” and “lower class” activity (194), and the first signaling to social stratification occurs before you even arrive at either venue — it’s signaled by ticket price. At its priciest, a cinema ticket can be $12–14, while the cheapest seats at a theatre production (if it’s professionally performed) could be around $25. When an audience member arrives, the venues are also wildly different — at a theatre production, the theater is generally very clean, with classical and fancy architecture, professionally dressed staff members, and the implicit expectation that one dresses up to attend the performance. At a movie theater, the venue is normally outfitted with easy-to-clean carpet, simple architecture, practically dressed employees, and no implicit or explicit dress code besides comfortable clothing.

Theatre is mired in its historical tradition and its status as the foundation of all drama — Malloy comments, “each time we see a performance, we are participating in theatre history” (1). In contrast, cinema is constantly evolving and changing, and as Bazin notes — has cinema even been truly created? “Every new development added to the cinema must, paradoxically, take it nearer and nearer to its origins. In short, cinema has not yet been invented” (236)! And now with the leaps of bounds of technology, movies can be consumed outside of the theater, on many devices, started and stopped and rewound without the order and constraint of a theater (Tryon). This serves to highlight the differences between theatre and cinema even further — a theatre performance can never be truly repeated, because each repetition is unique, while a movie can now be rewatched in chunks, and each time it will be identical, even when it’s broken up into pieces of minutes and seconds. Tryon references Charles Acland who refers to this as “a ‘rising informality’, a claim echoed by Francesco Cassetti, who writes that multitasking spectators treat films as ‘something to pick up now and put down later’” (289). Theatre denies this rising informality, the live performance forcing the audience to connect with it as a whole, resisting any breakdown of it into chunks. The ritual of theatre needs this whole and temporally limited connection, and could not be understood if it was broken down into the chunks that cinema now can be broken down into.

Can we judge if cinema and theatre are two sides of the same coin? It’s hard to make the call. Cinema hasn’t been invented yet, according to Bazin — or maybe it’s being constantly reinvented. It’s new, a part of pop culture, and generally accessible. Theatre has been around for thousands of years, each performance a homage to its beginning, participating in a communal ritual, a connection between audience and performer — and very much intertwined with social status.


Bazin, A. (1967). The Myth of Total Cinema. In Hugh Grey (trans. and ed.), What is Cinema?: Volume 2. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 23–27.

Brown, J. R. (2001). The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre (Vol. 1). Cary, NC: Oxford University Press. (pp. 1–13).

Chan, T. W. and Goldthorpe, J. H. (2005). “The Social Stratification of Theatre, Dance and Cinema Attendance.Cultural Trends 14 (3), pp. 193–212.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Chapter 3: Searching for the origami unicorn. Convergence Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 93–130.

Malloy, K. E. (2010). “Theatre and Film.University of Wisconsin Green Bay.

Manovich, L. (1995). What is Digital Cinema?

Sontag, S. (1966). “Film and Theatre.The Tulane Drama Review, 11(1), pp. 24–37.

Tryon, C. (2012). ‘Make any room your TV room’: digital delivery and media mobility. Screen, 53(3), pp. 287–300.