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It’s an actor’s job to take scripted material and bring life to a character. That includes memorizing the dialogue and understanding the plot line. But that’s only half the work. An actor must also be able to search for deeper meaning and motivation within the script. 

The term subtext refers to the underlying meaning of a text that isn’t stated outright. It’s commonly described as “reading between the lines.” The subtext gives the reader valuable information about the character, the plot, and the story’s overall context. Portions of dialogue can offer a distinct hidden intent, and the project’s overall theme can have a more broad underlying message. Gaining a firm grasp of the subtle, yet profound undercurrent within a character’s psyche and the significance of a story line empowers actors to maintain a strong command over their performance. 

What does the character seek to hide?

Layered underneath the story is what the character hopes to keep private. Why is he or she speaking or behaving in such a cryptic manner? What one conceals remains mysterious to others, but each character—no matter how hard he or she tries to stay hidden—still reveals personal feelings, beliefs, and intentions through body language, behavior, and choice of words. Maybe the character isn’t allowed to communicate these feelings due to circumstance—say, a wife who edits herself because her mother-in-law is in the room. Or perhaps a man is personally motivated to conceal his love for his coworker out of fear of being rejected. 

Investigate why.

Whatever the subtext is, an actor needs to take on the role of a detective to discover all of the character’s layers. Why is this character who is laughing on the outside, crying on the inside? Characters find safety in sugarcoating their intentions; if they were totally honest, they’d be vulnerable to rejection, ridicule, scorn, disappointing others, hostility, punishment, or violence. Or, they might keep things bottled up out of concern for others—not wanting to hurt their feelings, or not wanting to get them in trouble, for instance. So look closely for what the character is hiding, and more importantly, why.

Examining subtext elevates an actor’s performance.

Making an effort to dig for the subtext will boost an actor’s performance significantly. When actors take the time to really understand the details and the true essence of the script, they can perform each scene with all the complexity it deserves. And such depth draws audiences into the performance. Script analysis is a skill that may require numerous readings, as well as collaboration with others who are familiar with the material, such as the writer, director, producers, and scene partners. With exploration, actors can better grasp their dialogue and actions as they understand what their character, as well as other characters, are experiencing on a deeper level. 

To gain insight into subtext, actors can watch television shows and movies in search of the subtext in each scene, as well as the project’s broader theme. And when given sides for an audition, they can do some detective work and see what kind of subtext they can discover between the lines. If the sides are too limited to really determine the subtext, it’s time to use imagination to picture the scene with an interesting subtext. Doing so is sure to bring life to the performance. Also, when receiving a script, actors can use the margins to write what their character is actually thinking while speaking with others.