Subtext Is the Thing

Staying Sane

Never underestimate the power of ‘Subtext’

From the time we become actors, we hear a lot of people in the business say; “Acting is reacting.” “Acting is listening.” This lets us know that it’s often not what we are saying that is most important in our work, but what we are feeling and thinking when we are listening to the other character. What is our Point of View on the situation, the circumstance, and the person across from us. This is dependant on our SUBTEXT. Literally, what is ‘below the text.’ My old teacher used to call it the subterranean levels of the scene. What is below the surface.

I was watching Phillip Seymore Hoffman the other day in a film and the power of what was going on in his mid and soul, as the camera tracked with him walking through a huge lobby to enter a bathroom – was so powerful, and intense, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Whatever problem he, the man, Phillip Seymore Hoffman was thinking about, was occupying his mind in a way that was a little scary. Watching him, we give that problem that is in his mind to his character and the given circumstances of the story. He was so focused on his thoughts, his point of view, that without talking, without ‘face acting’ (which I can’t stand), the ‘energy’ in him communicated everything he wanted to be present in the scene. However, of course, we have no idea what was really in his mind. It could have been the imaginary circumstances of the film. Or it could have been a very personal problem or situation, like for instance that one of his children was very sick and he wanted to hear from his wife what the doctor reported. It could have been anything.

Here are some ways to build an approach to creating deeper, more personal subtext in your work, especially when working with a partner when you have text and dialogue that you must follow in the finished product.

Subtext Exercise: write out each line of the scene, and then write out, line by line what you are “really” saying or feeling. Example: “I love you” = “I’m telling you what I think you want to hear.” This exercise obviously helps clarify your “Intention”, and what your “Inner Life” is, regardless of what you are saying or what your “Outer Life” seems to express. Often, instead of ‘writing’ the SUBTEXT out in rehearsal or before shooting on set, the Actor will be asked to ‘speak the subtext’ during the rehearsal, on their feet, in the scene to the other actor.

Line by Line Exercise: Then Write out line by line, what you want your PARTNER to feel. Not you – your PARTNER. Example: “Would you mind closing the door on your way out?” + “Feel that you disgust me, and the sight of you makes me want to vomit.” This exercise also helps clarify your character’s “Inner Life”, motivations and “Intentions”, all despite what words are being said. Just like the SUBTEXT exercise, the ‘inner feelings’ or “Intentions” can be spoken as often as written.

Play The Scene As You Exercise: The following should be done with out much time lapse between rehearsals – a minute or two at most…Play the entire scene as you – NOT THE CHARACTER – would in the given situation. Then play the scene as the character but improvising the words to whatever degree you like.

Then finally, play the scene as the character and as written as well. Take the best, most free and the most personal moments from each run of the scene.

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Adam Lazarre-White Adam Lazarre-White grew up in NYC, graduated from Harvard University with Honors, started at QB for the “Crimson” and played in the Harvard Jazz Band. He is known for roles on Scandal, Heroes, Ocean’s 13, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, The Temptations, Living Single, The Parkers, and starring on The Young & The Restless. Adam’s writing and directing have become equal pursuit in recent years; and he has owned his acting school in Hollywood, ALW Acting Studios since 2000. For info on Adam's classes, acting, writing & directing visit his website at