Sometimes the text and the subtext are in perfect alignment, and what you say should be taken at face value. Sometimes “How are you today?” has no hidden meaning behind it. It’s just something we say in greeting one another.
But they often aren’t aligned. Sometimes we say one thing and mean another. Sometimes we feel one thing but pretend we don’t. Your job, as an actor, is to figure out when there is something hidden, as well as when there isn’t.
Who among us, in our real lives, says everything we think? How often are we truly honest about what we feel? And even if we are, how much of what we say is about what we feel?
Very little. We talk for other reasons. To gain information, to persuade, to explain, to think through, to debate, to wonder, to entertain, etc.
A single scene in a play may have multiple beats representing Small Verbs (tactics) you use to pursue the Medium Verb that covers the entire scene. Occasionally, you’ll get more than one Medium Verb in a lengthy scene. (Your Big Verb for the entire play will remain consistent throughout, however.)
I said that your subtext is both emotions and needs (verbs). The needs aren’t the Small Verbs, which are simply how you go about getting what it is you want. Needs are the bigger verbs, both the Big Verb that governs the entire play, and the Medium Verbs that govern scenes. Added to those needs are any of the emotions that you may be feeling. That’s your subtext.
Any time what you say and do is not perfectly matched with what you feel or what you want, you’re dealing with subtext. If you are in touch with those hidden elements, the audience will sense them. Your given circumstances provide the subtext at the start of the scene, but new information or events can provoke new but unspoken emotions in you that you didn’t have when the scene began, changing or adding to your subtext.
The subtext will typically cover more just the single lines I used as examples in the last post – it will cover one or more beats.
For instance, if I want you to do me a favor, I may not come right out and ask for it. I need the favor, but I’m afraid it’s something you won’t want to do, and I feel badly about asking for it. So perhaps I ask you a few questions first, because I want to figure out if it’s really going to be inconvenient for you to do the favor for me. Perhaps it means driving out of your way, and I want to be sure you have a car in good working condition, and the time to do it in between picking up the dry cleaning and getting your hair cut.
These aren’t idle questions; they are directly related to the matter of asking you to take care of four 8-year-old girls who are having a tea party as their playdate. How I ask the questions is going to be different than it would be if I was just curious about what you are doing on Friday. If you start telling me you’re getting your hair and nails done because of a special event you’re going to that evening, I may start feeling guilty about the fact that I’m going to ask you to do me this favor on what is probably a full day for you. And when you change the subject, I’m going to have to figure out a way to get back to the topic of just what your schedule looks like, so I can determine whether or not I’m going to ask you to do me the favor or find someone else to do it.
I may offer information about my own scheduling problems – the doctor appointment that suddenly became available on Friday, so I don’t have to wait until next week to find out what this strange lump in my body is. I may share with you my worry that I have the same cancer that killed my mother. Now I’m giving you a reason to want to help me when I finally get around to asking you the favor.
In other words, on my side of the conversation, it’s ALL about asking you a favor. THAT’S the subtext of the whole thing. I don’t ask the favor until the end of the second page, but those two pages are all about asking you a favor.
But again – don’t make the mistake of trying to play the emotional subtext. Playing emotions for their own sake doesn’t work, whether you’re dealing with text or subtext. It’s too heavy-handed and not grounded in real desire.
This is where the verbs come into play. They allow you to play the subtext, which includes your emotional state (an altogether different thing from the emotions that may flicker through you during the scene), with subtlety. I’m not playing guilt, need, fear, envy. I don’t have to figure out which line is the line to show my guilt on, which line to show my fear on. I just understand my circumstances: I am scared that I have a cancerous tumor, and need to visit the doctor on Friday to calm my fears. My daughter has been planning the tea party for three weeks, and the mothers of the other girls are counting on having the afternoon free and have already made other plans that take them out of town. You’ve got your own life and your husband is being honored by the Kiwanis Club tonight, and I feel guilty about asking for valuable time to do something that is bound to be stressful. But I really need this favor, and I’ve asked three other people, all of whom have turned me down. I really need my friend’s help.
If I understand my circumstances fully, then all I have to do is concentrate on playing my verb – getting you to do me this favor – and everything else, including my emotional life, is largely going to take care of itself in all the right ways.
To read What is Subtext?, go here.