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What is Subtext?
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What your Character Never Says and Why you, as the actor, must find a way to give it expression


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This is part of my series on creativity and specifically, performance skills for the actor. I offer a free acting class here. as well, for those interested in honing their acting skills. Please visit the introduction to the power connection online acting class. In this creative arts article, I answer a question from one of my students about subtext. What do you think subtext is and why is it important for the actor?

Questions about Acting: I'm not sure I understand what subtext is or how to create that in my characters....what is subtext, exactly?

Answers about Acting: You hear a lot about subtext in acting school but what is it, really? Basically, subtext is what is going on underneath the words, or even in opposition to the words. A lot of times, the subtext doesn't even agree with the words and is often more interesting that way. Subtext is usually what we infer, as the audience, from the reaction shots of the person in the scene who is not speaking at the time, or from mannerisms while speaking which let us know that what is being said is not all that is being communicated.

You have experienced this type of subtext in your own life, haven't you? One very common example is when you ask someone how they are and they say fine but you know, you just know, they are not fine. How do you know the person who just insisted they were fine is not, in fact, fine at all? Maybe it's the way it is said, the tone of the voice; maybe it's body language or the expression the face. The subtext of a conversation goes beyond words, to communicate more than words.

Go back to the example. You know they are not "fine" because things don't match up. Their internal dialogue or monologue, their subtext of reality, creates unconscious changes in their body, voice and mental process. These changes relate to how they are truly feeling. They may say one thing with their mouth but their body movements, vocal tone, breath, eyes, etc. tell a different truth.

Subtext is what the other person is saying to you, without words. However, I take this idea of subtext further than just the unsaid words or feelings. I consider anything that informs the character's reality, but is not directly shared with the audience, to be subtext. Others may not agree with that but, for me, it isn't just unspoken words or hidden feelings that determine subtext for me with a character I'm playing.

Why is subtext important for the actor?
Ever notice when you are watching a film, how often you are watching reactions? You will hear the other actor speaking but the camera will be on the actor who is listening. When an actor is required to relay any strong emotion without words, they must make the situation real enough internally to affect a believable and organic change in their demeaner, posture, facial expressions, breathe and tone of voice, to create subtext that an audience can pick up on and understand.

I read somewhere (could have been in Michael Chekov's book on acting which I recommend highly) that an actor once had to play a man with an unspecified mental disorder. So, he created a character who was afraid of pictures. Of course, this phobia was never addressed in the script. It was known that the man was insane but no one knew why he would suddenly be taken by fear or paranoia. It would happen when he got too near a picture or saw a picture, thought of a picture, etc. By having this subtext for the man, the actor could justify irratic behavior for his character in unlikely times and keep the character fresh. It might not be every time he looked at a picture but only if he saw it in a certain light or got too close to it, etc.

I watched a lot of Orange is the New Black while I had free trial to netflix. The actress they call "Crazy Eyes" really was able to have eyes that made you think she was crazy. I wondered what techniques may have been utilized by the actress, Uzo Aduba, to create such a believable physical characteristic. Most actresses who tried to look as crazy as she does in that show would have just ended up looking like caricatures or cartoonish. If I were to have been cast as "Crazy Eyes", I would have most likely called on imagination. For example, I may have imagined a small butterfly with a very sharp pitchfork that would suddenly fly toward my eyes at unexpected times or imagined that there were little people inside my head who periodically pulled at my eyes from the inside and I could do nothing to stop them.

A person could be afraid of people breathing on him, afraid of dirt on fabrics like curtains, seat cushions, etc. Perhaps a character is afraid of entities only he or she can see, and then decide when they will enter the room during the role. These sorts of unspoken choices can really flesh out a character's behavior with lots of rich subtext.

Another form of subtext is where the actor must convey, without words, that something is going on within them that is emotionally rich. In order for the audience to connect with and believe that an inner struggle or process is occurring, the actor must have some inner point of focus that is real. The subtext is what the actor is saying, thinking, remembering, imagining or processing, in response to the demands of the scene, which is coloring their reactions in the scene.

I remember coaching a professional story-teller once. She was talking about a particular house that had meaning to her. I stopped her and asked her what the house looked like. She didn't know. Because she didn't know, I didn't believe there was a house. Once she called the house forward in her imagination and could see the rocking chair on the porch and the indentation in the wood behind it from having been rocked on for decades, and the white shutters, and the willow trees blowing in the breeze in the front yard, then I saw something real happening to her face. I believed her then.

What is subtext? Subtext is what tells us the truth, regardless of what is being said. Subtext is that which fleshes out the words with what we never hear but, nonetheless, understand. Without subtext, in any film, television show or stage production, there's really nothing interesting to watch.