Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"Exploiting the Subtext"

Last night, an actor I like noted, in a critical tone, that a weakness of many actors is to "exploit the subtext," by which he seems to mean they make overly explicit the underlining 'meaning' of a text--e.g., the underlining psychological blah blah blah beneath the action--as opposed to trusting the text itself to do the work. He doesn't exactly mean "over acting," though that might be a species of exploitation. He also doesn't seem to mean "playing the (super) objective," which puts a generalized wash over a scene, and reduces the surface action to blocking. He does mean something that comes off as being 'presentational.'

I like the concept of "exploiting the subtext." It seems like a useful analytical tool (though it could also become an excuse for not doing your homework.) One practical translation of this, for me, is as a reminder to 'not try to hard' and always come back to my moment-to-moment life as it is unfolding between my scene partners and I.


suzy said...

In writing, when you plunge into an exploration of subtext, it's referred to as "big voice" or "the vertical." As opposed to flow, movement and horizontal momentum that is necessary to move the story (or piece) along.

Whether or not this plunge is contrived or "earned" has a lot to do with what brought you there. And what else is going on. It's also a matter of pacing (or, I would imagine timing, if we're talking about acting?).

I can see how being overly sessile to an abstracted subtext could mess with what's happening in the moment, but, as you point out, a little exploitation can be useful, vertically, to help inform what goes on moment-to-moment in the real world.

jason said...

I'm a big believer in the idea that subtext doesn't exist for an actor. I think our job is to do what's written, and nothing more. To say "let the text itself do the work" is a bit of an understatement. When we let the text do it's work, we also let the audience do theirs. And this can't be said enough: the audience COMMITS THEIR IMAGINATION when attending live theatre. It is that imagination and their own curiosity and intelligence which will reveal to them the playwright's subtext, themes, ideas, allusions, what have you. If I, the actor, am conscious of those things and incorporate them into a performance, then I ROB the audience of their ability, and their right and priveledge, to do it themselves.