Words are everything and nothing to an actor. A script is filled with words, all of which add up to a plot, theme, events, and characters but the actor is responsible for bringing the words to life. One of the best ways to infuse a performance with conflict and drama is to interpret and play the subtext of the script.
What is Subtext?
In a play or film, subtext is the underlying message being conveyed by a piece of dialogue. Some call it the “lines between the lines” or “the unsaid meaning.” Writers love to use subtext in scripts because it adds an extra layer of complexity to scenes and their characters.
Actors must act like investigators to identify the true meaning of their dialogue so that they can play the character’s subtextual intention, rather than just recite the lines. Overlaying the meaning of the subtext on top of the dialogue gives actors something to do and makes for a more interesting performance.
Finding the Meaning of the Subtext
How often do people say exactly what they mean? Probably not often because of the obstacles that stand in the way. Social conventions, other people in the room, and/or a fear of rejection are common reasons that people and characters do not speak literally. So, understanding a character’s objective and obstacles is the first step to finding their subtext.
After reading a script, take a moment to think about the objective of the character i.e. what do they want? Then, consider the different obstacles that they face. Characters adopt different strategies to try and conquer their obstacles, and these changes of tactic are often motivated by subtext.
When reading through the script, mark places where the character is communicating something great than what they say. This may be a feeling, an opinion, or a desire that is hidden within the words they say. Once the subtext is identified and assigned a meaning, experiment with ways to clearly play the scene so the subtext shines through.
Examples of Subtext
Subtext is a common convention of modern scripts and appears in every film and play we see today. Here is a simple two line exchange to illustrate subtext:
INT. LIVING ROOM
A man enters the room. A woman is sitting on the couch.
How are you?
There are 1,000 different ways to play this scene and they all hinge of the choice of subtext. Is the Woman really fine? Does the Man really care?
An actor could decide that the Woman is happy, sad, angry, disappointed or any number of emotions which would change the delivery of the line (of course, do not play an emotion, play an action). The same can be said for the Man. He could be in a hurry, he could be sympathetic, or he could be sarcastic among other things.
This example is only to show how subtext can change. In a well-written script, there will be clues about the characters’ emotional state and the true meaning of the dialogue.
The Final Word, Between the Lines
Identifying and playing the subtext of a scene is an advanced skill that the best actors make good use of. Careful script analysis is needed to find and decide what the subtext is and solid acting technique is needed to honestly play the subtextual meaning. If the dialogue is what the actor says, and the action is what the character does, then the subtext is what the character ultimately means.