In my professional opinion, one of the most vital skills an actor of any discipline must master is character subtext. You see, without subtext the words you speak are nothing more than that – words. There is no story, no emotional roadmap for audience members or depth – there are only words.
Because of the importance of subtext, I have created and utilized the “Exploring Character Subtext” advanced acting exercise. This acting exercise may be performed in an acting class, or among acting partners to strengthen your ability to act according to the character’s subtext.
Selecting a Phrase
The goal of this exercise is to not give actors entire scenes you portray, but rather short phrases that will then alter according to the scenario and subtext of the character.
Feel free to use any of the following phrases, or come up with your own.
Character A: What time will you be back?
Character B: Probably late, don’t wait up.
Character A: It smells really bad.
Character B: I think it’s coming from over there.
Character A: Did you hear that?
Character B: It sounds like something is happening.
Character A: That concert was amazing.
Character B: I should have not come.
Selecting a Scenario
The purpose of this exercise is to allow actors the opportunity to delve into a character subtext based on the simple objective of a scenario or circumstance.
Once you have selected a scenario, give the actors the first scenario and allow them to act it out. Next, give the actors another scenario and have them recite the same lines of dialogue, but this time using the subtext they created from the new scenario.
The goal when selecting a scenario is to have a scene that is one extreme emotionally, and the next scenario is the complete opposite.
For example, a pair of friends sitting in an elevator when suddenly it stops due to a strange sound, and one of the character’s is frightened of small, enclosed spaces.
The next scenario could be two new boyfriends/girlfriends lounging on the couch when one of them passes gas.
Each of the aforementioned scenarios may be used on the same two lines of dialogue.