Subtext – An actors guide

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Photo Credit: Jason Barles via cc
We are delighted to republish Prof. John Palmer’s ‘Theatre Briefs’ series, Actor Hub hope you find them as useful as we have.
This series of short essays about acting is reprinted with the kind permission of Professor John P Palmer of London, Ontario, Canada. He wrote these ‘Theatre Briefs’ for use by students and fellow actors during classes and rehearsals. Where he has relied on material from others, they are cited.
Does “no” mean “no”?
Acting is more than learning lines. Learning lines is necessary, but just learning lines isn’t enough. How you act and deliver the lines is what conveys the entire message. Consider the following brief dialogue:
Smith: Do you want mayo with that?
Jones: No.
Here are some options for what “No” might mean in this context:
  • “No” you have asked me that every weekday for the past 7 years, you moron.
  • “No” you have asked me that every weekday for the past 7 years; I like this little ritual we play with each other.
  • “No” it just reminded me of a horrible infectious pimple oozing.
  • “No” can’t you see I’m flirting with this person right now?
  • “No” my shrink advised me to do something daring and different each day.
  • “No” I’m worried about my cholesterol.
  • “No” I’m afraid you’ll give me Miracle Whip instead of real mayo, and I’m embarrassed that I might look picky if I ask about these things.
  • “No” I don’t like mayo.
  • “No” don’t bother me; I’m depressed and don’t want to talk with anyone.
  • “No” I’ve given up mayo for Lent.
As you can see, just a simple “No” will not suffice. Jones has a reason for saying “No”, and that reason will affect how “No” is said. It will also affect Jones’ body language, tone of voice, and mannerisms
For every line you have, please consider why your character says what s/he says.
Or, conversely, I sometimes find that when I experiment with saying lines in different ways, emphasizing different words and with different nuances, I then discover different subtexts and meanings. Doing this is a very useful exercise even if you feel comfortable with the subtexts you have already decided upon because it encourages you to look even more deeply into the character.
The explanations that follow the word “No” are referred to as subtext by many acting instructors. But you will also run across many other terms for essentially the same concept.
Based on work by Michelle Sheiman
These essays may be reproduced at no charge for non-commercial purposes. Just please acknowledge the original source (John Palmer) and his blog Eclectecon.
Also please retain the attributions included in the briefs.
You may not use these resources for commercial purposes.