SubtextYou may not realize it, but it happens: you find yourself watching a motion picture and the actor or actress on the screen is so mesmerizing, so natural, that he or she seems lost in that moment of conflict or emotion.  As a result, you, as the viewer, find yourself lost in that moment as well.  The performer’s actions, gestures, and expressions all seem so real and genuine that their performance doesn’t even seem like acting.  The viewer can feel the meaning behind the spoken words without having to be pushed or exposed to over-emphasis.

The audience calls this good acting.  Professionals in the industry- actors, directors and writers- call this “subtext.”

What Is Subtext?

The subtext of any story or script refers to the meaning behind the words or dialogue.  Subtext conveys what the person intends to say, without those words actually being said.  Quite often, people don’t say what they really mean; we often give and receive mixed signals through distractions such as facial expressions, body language, and even a certain tone of voice used by the speaker.  This can frequently lead to miscommunication.  As actors, directors, and writers, this miscommunication can be used as subtext and can become a source of extra dramatic effects.  Subtext can reveal a deeper level of authenticity to the character and to the story.

You can find good examples of subtext in the greatest stories and dialogue, as well as great performances.  For example,  in the movie Waiting to Exhale, Angela Bassett’s character, Bernadine, expresses her rage about her husband’s adultery by removing all of his clothes and belongings, loading them into a car, and burning the car in front of their home.  When a fireman appears at her door and lets her know that what she did was illegal, Bernadine looks at him and says, “It won’t happen again.”

The words referred to the burning, but the meaning behind the words, along with her tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures, let the audience know that she was referencing a cheating partner.  This moment had more impact with the subtext and was more powerful than simply having Bernadine just explain why she destroyed her husband’s property.  It was a simple, yet effective, way to convey Bernadine’s conflict, as well as her determination not to be hurt again.  That is the power of subtext.

Why Subtext Is Important

In order for an actor to perform a genuine moment or reaction, he or she must connect with the character being portrayed.  Performers often have to make the situation real enough in their own minds in order to make their physical interpretations of the character more believable for the audience.  The actor has to make personal connections with the script and then use those connections to not only reveal the inner workings of the character but to create the subtext for the audience to understand.  Some actors, like Willem Dafoe, believe that the creation of subtext should be intuitive, even subconscious:

“If you’re too worried and too controlling of the gesture, then you’re not gonna be addressing your intuitive side, your subconscious side; you’ll only be able to do what you conscious mind tells you to do.  You’re gonna be bound by psychology and meaning, not gonna be experiencing the stuff experientially.”

When an actor is creating subtext, it is considered unconscious and instinctive.  If an actor purposely tries to choose the subtext and intentionally re-create an emotion, that is called “intellectualizing subtext,” or as Willem Dafoe noted, “controlling the gesture.”   This could lead to “faking” the emotions; as a result, the performance would not be believable.  When an actor’s performance falls into predictable mannerisms, this is often called “playing a moment cheap.”

No Subtext?

There are certain times when subtext is not used in performances.  For instance, although many actors are encouraged to “live in the moment” of a story, some directors sway the actors away from the subtext of the script.  This happens when the directors feel the story itself is honest enough; if the filmmaking process and the physical action already serve the story, then the director may feel that projecting emotional depths are unnecessary.  This creates a certain style to the movie, which Bertolt Brecht described as the “A-effect (alienation effect).”  Brecht stated that he didn’t want the actors to get emotional, as that would cause the audience to get emotional and drown out the significance of the story.

Furthermore, some actors make the choice themselves to not use the subtext of a script, even to the point of refusing to engage in the rehearsal process.  Some performers feel that rehearsing the script will take away the element of surprise, as they believe that good acting should be spontaneous.  This is still considered risky; when some actors don’t think about the subtext of the lines, they may actually have to think about how to perform the lines, and the performance might not be as convincing.

How To Make Sure Subtext Is Used

Writers and directors can assist actors in finding this subtext.  How can they do this?  First, directors can allow the actor to get “lost in the moment,” with no micro-management occurring on their part.  Some directors, while watching the actors perform, just keep talking and talking, which results in the micro-managing of the actor’s inner life.  Thus, the actor loses the freedom to explore the subtext of the story.  To prevent this from happening, directors are encouraged to communicate subtext with the actors while analyzing the characters and story for themselves.  Actors should also learn to notice when they are given bad direction in this area and learn to use their own creativity.

Second, writers should also pay close attention to the use of subtext, not only for the actors’ sakes but for the sake of the story as well.  Writers should avoid using a “formula” style of writing and allow the characters to live through their imaginations.  Do not make the characters’ intentions and dialogue too obvious, and pay attention to what could be read or interpreted between the lines.

The Final Word

Glenn Close stated that what she wants from a director is “the simplest, simplest truth.”  The simplest truth can be another way of saying the “essence.”  For a director or a writer to have the essence to bring out the most revealing and emotional responses from an actor, they must avoid formulas and clichéd ideas.  That will clear the way for the actor to examine the lines between the lines, and to develop an effective means of bringing them to light for the audience.