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BANJO, Rukaiyyah: The Screen and the Stage - Contrasting Media

The Screen and the Stage: Contrasting Media

Rukaiyyah BANJO

Department of Theatre and Performing Arts

Bayero University, Kano


There is no doubt that the stage and the screen have a relationship. However, this relationship is mostly perceived as either a consistent artistic rivalry between competing performance genres, or belonging to two entirely different worlds in which they have little or nothing in common. This idea of theatre and film as separate, competing entities is not only shared by the general public but also by some theatre practitioners who have in recent times accepted that both concepts, though, each could be a lone performance, share a common interaction whereby the script could be modified for the screen using adaptation and transposition methods. All too often, it is assumed that movies either have replaced, or can or will replace theatre, but this assumption calls for an exploration. This automatically leads us to ask what are the real differences between the two? What is it we need and expect from each? And to what extent have both genres influenced each other. These are some of the questions this study hopes to look into and find answers to.


The art of film and filmmaking has become popular culture world over, just like the stage during the early days of theatre making; and the discussionwhether there is an unbridgeable divide between the two arts – “theatrical” and “cinematic” has lingered on for some time now. Although, there are differing opinions on this but majority belong to the schools of thoughtthat believes that there is. A commonplace of discussion has it that film and theatre are noticeably different and even parallel arts, each dictating its own standards and tenets. No doubt, both genres are in a constant state of development and that which seems to be authentic at the moment may become antiquated due to constant technological advancement not only in the media but also in all areas of life humans make use of technology.

The Stage and its Oral Influence

Fromtime, beyond memory, storytelling has played an intimate part in nation building. These stories have been imported to the stage to make theatre, and the storytelling sessions have overtime become theatre going sessions; from orality to improvisation and then, to scripted plays – when playwriting and theatre became formalised. All through the ages, griots, actors or performers have existed in one manner of practice or another. Their various acts of creativity have influenced theatre greatly by moving it through all the various stages to become what it is today. Although, the growth and development of theatre cannot be said to be smooth, but DeWitt submits that, “as in all art, the greatest talent and development occur less often than the mediocre and may seem short-lived; but in reality they have the longest life, for it is they which influence the best growth of the future and in that way live on through the ages” (165). DeWitt in his submission gives credence to orality as the pioneer of the various forms of theatrical productions paraded as art forms in the present time, regardless of the shortness of its existence.

Mabweazara confirms the above submission when he says that “present day African theatrical forms have filtered through from the past” (postcolonialweb). This certainly tunes the mind to analyzing the content of a theatrical piece in search of elements of orality that obtains in the place of birth or origin of the theatrical piece. In Africa, for instance, theatre existed for functionality, to promote and reward good deeds, instillmorals and societal values and ridicule societal ills. To this end, theatre has always been didactic. Of importance are the various traditional ceremonies and ritual performances that embodied music, songs, and dances as elements of total theatre; serving as means of inspiration to playwrights in scripted dramas.

Before globalization, basically, what would come to mind when the stage is mentioned is a performance and the performer, and the word performer would likely bring to mind the stage, and a story to be told. From the aforementioned, it is a fundamental reality that to a great extent and irrespective of the level of the technological incursion into the theatre, the "stage" has retained its age long significance but occasionally with slight alterationsin reference to "the stage proper," or "the speaking stage" (DeWitt 165). This, then leads to the query; where the actor functions, on the Stage or on the Screen? Be it the Stage for the live theatre or the screen, an actor on the Stage or the Screen, it is an established fact that for theatre of any kind to be birthed, there must be a stage and an actor.

The Screen and its Technology Influx

The screen is a relatively new invention when compared to other art forms. As new as the early 19th century, when the Lumière brothers in France developed a camera that made a short 35mm film that also served as a projector. Still pictures have existed before this time, but the yearnings for moving images led to various inventions before the discovery by the Lumière brothers. It is in order to create illusion that lone still pictures appeared rapidly, and projecting them required certain technologies. Accounts have it that it is in a bid to record series of images that photography was invented. Commenting on the development of cinema, Bordwell and Thompson say that, “…photography offered the cheapest and most efficient way to generate the thousands of images needed for a reasonably lengthy display (441). Thus, the invention of photography in 1826 launched a series of discoveries that made cinema possible.” This happened at a period when the world experienced a rapid change in development in all spheres.

Further experiments were carried out by curious scientists and technologists to transit from silent movies to “talkies” – sound movies, a combination of moving images with the infusion of sound to better appeal to the senses of the masses and affect them. The first of this kind of movie was ThomasEdison of Warner Bros’ The Jazz Singer, an adaptation of Samuel Raphaelson’s play, The Day of Atonement. Edison, when explaining his invention in states that,

…the idea occurred to me that it would be possible to devise an instrument which should do for the eye what the phonograph does to the ear, and that by a combination of the two all sound and motion could be recorded and reproduced simultaneously (cited in Hanson 8).

The success of this experiment in 1927 gave rise to the cinema. Various additions were made to the experiment and the conventional theatre moved from the stage to the cinema houses and later to the television sets and the result is what we film watch on various platforms today. In Africa, film was introduced as a propagandist tool by the colonial masters, what (Adesanya 37) refers to as, “a carryover from the colonial heritage.”

Film exhibition in Nigeria began in 1903 in Glover hall, Lagos, at the early stage of colonization and lasted well beyond the 50s. At this juncture, it was realized that films were colonial machinations aimed expanding colonisation. Mahama Traorè, a Senegalese filmmaker comments on the content of colonial films that, they are “…vehicles of violence, sex and an alien culture, a culture into which we are not integrated and into which we, in fact, refuse to be integrated because we want to remain ourselves” (Adesanya 38). Hence, the need to make films “not only in reaction to and rejection of alien cultural domination but also to reinstate our own cultural heritage and reorient our own people suffering from colonial mentality” (Adesanya 37).

The Interface: From Stage to Screen

The roots of African theatre is ritual, seasonal rhythms, religion and communal communication are roots common to world theatre (Banham xvi). Theatre is known as a popular phenomenon that has its roots in all societies and cultures of the world, initially,with the sole aim of entertainment. Its growth from the religious activities and festivals has made it inseparable from everyday life; even after its transition and adaptation into the electronic media in recent times.Therefore, “theatre is an extremely multifaceted institution encircling all aspects of life” (Brockett 9). In agreement with Brockett, Wilson and Goldfarb state that, “theatre permeates and informs every aspect of our lives and is therefore an activity that we use to describe how we live” (35); thereby making theatre “an extra-daily dimension, beyond the everyday but ironically dependent on the everyday realm” (Read vi). Like the traditional religion and the church, the theatre has to a great extent played an intimate part in community life through the oral word. The practitioners of this theatre, according to DeWitt, that is, “entertainers, troubadours, minstrels, gleemen, jongleurs, have woven their threads of influence into the tapestry of the theatre's present-day art” (165).

As theatre evolved from the religious ceremonies through the Popular Travelling Theatre into complete theatrical performances with the infusion of church activities, the society began to realize its social, political and economic potentials; thereby, becoming a tool, not only for aesthetic expression but for cultural and religious expressions as well. These functions of theater however, “vary from a given context to another, a given time to another and a given place to another” (Ogunbiyi 8). Evaluating theatre from within the perspective of everyday context makes easy for its interpretation and adaptation for various uses and purposes and more importantly, its sustenance beyond the traditional theatre delivery.

            Of theatre’s many variations is the film which has since invention made a consistent and significant progress, in aspects of profit maximization, entertainment, formal education and in the projection and reinforcement of a true national culture and heritage, despite its threats to live stage performances. As a by-product of theatre, there has been an appreciable relationship between them since the importsof film and the film industry in the 20th century, ranging from the actors to the directors and even content and context of the productions. (Saltz 1) opines that, “Many, though by no means all, of the film directors most instrumental to defining the art form started their careers in theatre.” He further cites examples of world famous stage actors and playwrights who turned their love to the screen. Amongst them are D. W. Griffith, a stage actor and playwright before he became a film director, Bertolt Brecht, at some time in exile dabbled into filmmaking and even wrote a couple of scripts for the screen, and many otheractors like Meryl Streep, AI Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Kenneth Branaugh and Willem Dafoe are equally comfortable on stage and screen.

In Nigeria, accounts have it that the shift from the stage to the television/screen started off as anexperiment to test the workability of a “mixed media production, with film insertions into stage/television productions” (Adedeji & Ekwuazi 167). The success of this particular action paved the way for the emergence of film in Nigeria. The early stage theatre practitioners turned filmmakers and film directors are Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo, Kola Ogunmola, Ade Afolayan, Ola Balogun and Eddie Ugbomah. In fact, most of the exceptional film directors and actors in the Nigerian film industry were trained on the stage, hence, their brilliant performance in both media. From the foregoing, it is an undeniable fact that there is a flow of creativitybetween theatre and filmas both are dependent and independent works of Art.

Film art is by no means an accident. Films are purposefully designed to have effect on viewers and they have succeeded because they speak to the imaginative needs of the masses; a tool whose role is beyond mere entertainment but a method of educating and indoctrinating its viewers. This is made possible by infusing visual elements in the moving images to create communication, deliberately made to provoke the thoughts as well as feelings of viewers, alter the viewers’ awareness, and provide an experience that transcends the viewers’ immediate situation and environment. Thus, the one who holds the camera surely adds a subjective bias to control the minds of his viewers, making film an art, just like every other creative art like painting and literature. On this, Schipper opines that film, like theatre, “does not ‘reflect’ society in an objective manner (123). An objective reality does not exist. The theatre is an instrument with which dancers, singers, narrators, writers and actors interpret their own ideas about reality as they see it.” On the other hand but not contrary to Schipper’s view is Truffaut’s in Bordwell and Thompson that,

There are two kinds of directors: those who have the public in mind when they conceive and make their films, and those who don’t consider the public at all. For the former, cinema is an art of spectacle; for the latter, it is an individual adventure. There is nothing intrinsically better about one or the other; it’s simply a matter of different approaches (3).

Either way, film creates avenues for filmmakers to compose and design experiences other than theirs, for viewers, regardless of their genre.

The Gulf

The distinction of genres, the differences in the form and style of aesthetics and the techniques of production are what constitute the differences between the two art forms. Theatre is live. This liveliness of the theatre is said to give it the realness of actual life which makes each performance impossible to replicate. On the stage, there are the “unities of time, space and action,” a theatre concept/rule that unite the action, time of action and the place of action. Unity of action states that a play should have just one storyline with minimal subplots and without parts; unity of time states that the actions in a play should not occur for over a period of twenty-four hours and; unity of place states that a play should exist in a single physical space. Therefore, a play should be constructed in other that the actions are confined to a single geographical space and within a period one day. Most theatrical presentations are constructed in a manner that each scene is timed and the actual length of the plays could only be a little less or more than the actual time scheduled for the production. Contributing to the realness of theatre is thefixed perspective and distance from which a given spectator views the mise-en-scène for the duration of a whole performance. The stage type and the sitting position of a spectator determine how much and what the spectator sees of the action on display because the old notion of natura non facitsaltus still applies very much in the theatre.

Film, unlike the theatre, has no guiding principle as regards time, place and action. The director may decide to compress or extend time and represent more than one locale in his creation. The Director of Photography dictates what the viewers see by manipulating the camera to capture different shots of a particular object or person, giving him a certain mannerism and creating an illusion with editing techniques. He dictates the tempo and the mood of the production either by a slow motion or fast motion. This distinction can, hence, be summarized thus: the theatre is an interpretation of a script while the film is a creation of a work of art. This distinction is further clearly expressed by Poggioli, that;

… the liberties that are taken or the mutilations that are imposed on the living body of the script (andeven the hypertrophictendencies of modern directing which induce the so-called "rejuvenation of the classics") never quite succeed in changing the innate character of an imaginative inspiration. That essence will remain intact through all the distortion and revision of that translation which is called a production. The screen…, on the contrary, knows absolutely nothing of that formula… and in fact without any scruple he (the director) subordinates the more or less detailed, chaotic outline of the scenario to his own stylistic exigencies and his particular poetic motives (65).

The stage director, regardless of the level of editing or changes he does to the script, stays true to the literary work he is producing because he must respect the author’s work.To achieve this, he works closely not only with other crew members on the production, but with the cast as well, because without the actors, there can never be a performance. Conversely, the film director may decide to eliminate certain actors or dialogue and replace them with montage. The director orders a scene or shot to be taken as many times as it takes to get it perfectly to avoid mistakes and produce what he assumes to be a “master piece,” hence, the role of the continuity manager in filmmaking is created. The reverse is the case in the theatre. The only time created for corrections is the rehearsal period and the dress and tech night. All mistakes made by the actors and other crew members cannot be reversed. A message or dialogue that is not properly delivered by a performer in the theatre is lost and gone forever; the only opportunity the audience has to receive that message is to watch a repeat of the performance, if time and chance permit. That is why two or more stage performances of a play cannot be the same.

            Scholars such as Joseph Chaikin and Jean-Paul Sartre have stressed that the presence of the actor is central to the discussion of theatre and film. The three basic elements of the theatre, that is, the presence of the performers, the presence of the audience and the acting space give theatre its liveliness. The presence of the audience in the theatre and their ability to relate to every event being (re)presented on the stage is considered to be the most important theatrical experience. This unique attribute creates an avenue for intimacy between the audience and the performers. In some instances, the actors direct one or two rhetorical questions to the audience; their responses give them a sense of belonging and participation. At other times, the audience easily recognises certain known characters through their manners of speech and chosen mannerisms. This connection between the actors and the audience brings about the feelings of communal art which is likely to evoke genuine emotion.

            Because film is recorded, there is no direct connection with the audience. Intimacy can only be gained through the numerous camera angles and close-ups. The viewer has the liberty to freeze a particular scene or shot for a better and clearer look and expression of the actor. Succinctly described by Sartre, “the film actor is "closer" to the viewer - not so much in visual space as in bodily sensation – "close-ups, the nakedness of faces," which allows the viewer see beyond the surface expressions of the actor (86, in Willmott 2). The numerous cinematic techniques greatly influence the structure and meaning of the film. The use of different shots and frames can influence interpretation, which automatically influences the meaning of the story. This is what Sontag means by “the contrast between theatre and films is usually taken to lie in the materials represented or depicted” (24). Here, the camera can be used to project all visuals generally associated with movies as deemed fit by the creator.One of the major advantages of film is the use of pictures in telling stories.It has been observed that pictures and images are better recalled and have a more lasting effect on viewers than dialogue in movies. The viewer takes in every gesture and non-verbal expression of the actor, although less exaggerated when compared to stage acting. That is why Weber says that, “there is something tremendously exciting about being able to reveal character, reveal content, reveal story through image rather than through dialogue. Film, unlike theatre has a dual function. It is an art form andthemessage which is conveyed to a large public in different locations (1). Sontag explicitly describes it thus:

… cinema is a "medium" as well as an art,in the sense that it can encapsulate any of the performing arts and render it in a film transcription. This "medium" or non-art aspect of film attained its routine incarnation with the advent of television. There, movies themselves became another performing art to be transcribed, miniaturized on film. One can film a play or ballet or opera or sporting event in such a way that film becomes, relatively speaking, a transparency, and it seems correct to say that one is seeing the event filmed. But theatre is never a "medium." Thus, because one can make a movie "of" a play but not a play "of" a movie... (25).

The fact that film is a medium is established by McLuhan when he affirms that, “the medium is the message” (7).

Influences: Bridging the Gulf

The answer to whether there is a relationship between the screen and the stage is, yes, both genres are aimed at and committed to telling storieseither in a dramatic, narrative or bothforms. There is a relationship between them with theatre being a product of orality and the film being a bi-product of theatre; but in recent times, a more independent film culture is being designedaway from total reliability on theatre. Whether the screen and the stage are artistic rivals or not is a question for individual practitioner/professionalof either or both art forms who feels strongly about his own genre to answer. The interaction between theatre and film is observed, first, in some of the early films as filmed plays on stage and projected on the silver screen for viewers (which is still very prominent with Tyler Perry’s films and BBC’s productions of Shakespeare’s literary works); second, in crew partitioningand aesthetics, even with the differences in the application and outcomeof both performance genres and; third, in the frequent borrowing of techniques by both genres from each other. This is succinctly observed by Losambe and Sarinjeive: “Drama and film are so closely knit, although they are separate genres in their own right” (50). Each of these genres can stand as a lone performance, attract their own audience and retain them either through their messages, medium or techniques or all of them. Vardac reports that:

Naturally, in these early years, the film and the stage were hardly differentiated from one another; the cinema frequently borrowed from the theatre, while the theatre, in an attempt to counter the new attraction, in turn borrowed from the film… The result was that of the two styles which defined the nineteenth-century theatre, realism and romanticism, and which most probably would have seen alteration in the early years of the twentieth century, were given a new lease of life (xxvi).

As earlier mentioned, the various theatrical genres and aesthetics (visual and performance) have to a large extent; influenced film, especially, indigenous African films. The various aspects of the folklore of the people are now being represented in film productions, even in the face of complex technological and mechanical machines. Commenting on the influence of theatre on film, Salts states that,

Nineteenth-century theatrical genres such as melodrama, the "well-made" play, and vaudeville set the pattern for many popular film genres.Avant-garde filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder have been deeply influenced by Brechtian concepts (2).

It is not surprising that the melodramatic and Brechtian concepts reflected in the productions of the Yoruba Popular Travelling theatre as the first set of theatre makers to transit to the film and make indigenous cinema in Nigeria. Adesanya gives the account thus: Ola Balogun’s Ajani Ogun opened the paved the way for local film production (38). Hubert Ogunde’s Aiye and Bread and Bullet (Opera 1950), followed by Eddie Ugbomah’s films opened the door to global reckoning of what is known as “Nollywood” today. Likewise, theatre in the early twentieth–centurytill the present-day has undergone some transmogrifications as a result of film influence. It is affirmed that playwrights and theatre directors began to incorporate filmic and later televisual structures and effects such as montage, flashback and fantasy elements. This step could be traced to Elmer Rice's On Trial and Hubert Ogunde’s Aiye (Saltsz 2; Ogundele 95).The introduction of suchtechnical resourcesinto the theatre created a multimedia genre that captivated the audience’s attention and created a new platform for exploit for theatre practitioners.

If the early film of the western world borrowed from the theatre, if filmmakers in Africa are still in the business of adapting scripts meant for the theatre to the screen and film insertions and filmic elements are still very much in use in stage productions, one cannot cease to wonder why both media are treated as separate entities, far off each other especially in the academia. In most academic institutions, at least on the African continent, the practitioners of both genreshave held strongly their beliefs about their genre. It is difficult to decipher if this is a deliberate act or subconscious. Although, some scholars are of the view that the film on its growth posed as threat to the theatre because of its mass appeal and nature of illusion, the reaction to this development was to have theatre redefined in contrast to the new medium. This action seemed to be the only method of preserving the theatre from being eroded by film. Saltz affirms that two notable scholars amongst the strong proponents of this course are Erwin Picastor and Josef Svoboda. Both are twentieth-century modernist theatre innovators, who boycotted film in performance; instead, emphasize those elements that purportedly made theatre distinct as a medium, in particular, the "presence of the actor" (2).

On the other hand, film professionals are of the strong opinion that “The cinema is an autonomous art. The cinema must therefore never copy the stage” (Marinetti, et al. 12). This opinion is borne out of the claim that the cinema is the only art that is invented by man and as such, it is devoid of all primitive affiliations. In the words of Panofsky

Film art is the only art the development of which men now living have witnessed from the very beginnings; and this development is all the more interesting as it took place under conditions contrary to precedent. It was not an artistic urge that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new technique; it was a technical invention that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new art (247).

This assertion points to two major issues surrounding the invention of film in the western world. First, the idea that film was conceived with no particular objective or aesthetic interest in mind and; second, it is an original invention whose development gave birth to a new art form rather than a mere device used to record theatrical performances. It is against this background that the knowledge and practice of film studies has gained respectability within the academic disciple.

The motif for the adoption of film in Africais quite contrary to that of the Western world. Film assertions and film elements were introduced into the theatre to create fantasy which in turn creates beauty. To this end, the field of film studies is still firmly associated with theatre studies because of its affiliation with the visual elements of the theatre.Still, it is true that both art forms possess the credibility to achieve great degree of quality and to affect the viewers on an intensely personal level, although using different methods and the basics remain the same. Film, therefore, theatre is transition and continuum.

The Nigerian Theatre Practice and its Interaction with Film

The Nigerian theatre practice has interacted with film on all levels. As a practice, the theatre has learnt itself easily to the film. The easy transition and transfer of crafts from the stage by theatre practitioners to the screen has made the film industry in Nigeria grow to become the second largest movie producers in the world, ahead of Hollywood, the inventors of the new media. Directors and actors alike migrated to this new art form yet, patriotic to the stage, whenever it calls; script writes freely give their consent to their scripts to be adapted to the art form. Right from the days when Francis Oladele adapted Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvestthrough 2006 when Tunde Kelani adapted Bayo Adebowale’s The Virgin to the screen as The Narrow Path, film was well a welcome development in Nigeria as it not only created an avenue for their works to be seen across Nigeria, and perhaps, world over but also created an opportunity to make money, especially with the advent of VHS and VCD. This relationship between the two media has run smoothly over the years that it is difficult to differentiate to which of the art form the workers belong. Often, workers of this two medium in Nigeria have a meeting place, a gathering which makes it possible for directors to recruit new theatre workers both for screen and stage productions. A case of discrimination between theatre professionals and film professionals have not been recorded as far as Nigeria is concerned as both medium have serves as home to all theatre workers in all forms and genres. Just like their American counterparts, most seasoned Nigerian film professionals also have their training as stage actors. A sizeable number of theatre directors and actors have also moved to the film since the coming of the VHS and the VCD. For instance, actors, Olu and Joke Jacobs who had their training at the London School of Acting, Kate Henshaw, Funmilola Aofiyebi, Sadiq Daba, Jude Orhora, and theatre directors like, Sadiq Balewa, Imasuen Adesuwa, Foluke Ogunleye, amongst others.


The debate about the superiority of either of these art forms over the other by scholars has waned considerably over time, coming to the realization that scripts that are meant to be performed on the stage are often made into film using adaptation and transposition methods; by creating a screen script, thereby popularizing the creative work.The cinema, other than being a new technology is an extension of us, recording every aspect of human existence yet bringing it to life. It has developed from mere excitement to a source of cultural artifacts, a medium through which our culture and tradition are preserved for the younger generations yet to come. Film is the way forward. With threats posed by the western media that has saturated the African culture and media as well; and the influence of this media on the reading culture of Africans as a whole, the film is not only taking dominance over theatre but having a transformative effect on theatre where certain technical effects used in film productions are used in stage productions. The development of and “preference” for film over theatre through the years can be likened to that of the old and the new means of communication. Unlike when the town crier goes around the village to give information to inhabitants or call them to assemble at certain places to receive information, people now sit within the comfort of their homes, offices and even cars to know the ongoing and learn about cultures world over. However, the discussion has been and is still open-ended, it remains a discourse which no one can tell how long it will last.

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Aiye. Dir. Hubert Ogunde, 1976.

Bread and Bullet. Dir. Hubert Ogunde, 1950.

Kongi’s Harvest. Dir. Francis Oladele, 1970.

On Trial. Dir. Rice Elmer, 1914.

The Jazz Singer. Dir. Thomas Edison, 1927.

The Narrow Path. Dir. Kelani Tunde, 2006.


Rukaiyyah BANJO holds a BA Performing Arts (Drama) and MA Dramatic Arts (Media option) from University of Ilorin and Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, respectively. She is currently with the Department of Theatre and Performing Arts, Bayero University, Kano, where she teaches media related courses and practical theatre courses.