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From the Green Room: Acting the Sub-text

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Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond opens with one side of a phone conversation. Norman Thayer, Jr., a retired English professor whose mind seems to be going, is calling the operator to check that the phone in their summer cottage on the pond is working. The audience is privy only to his side of the conversation. ”Who’s this?” he asks when he hears a voice after he has been momentarily distracted by a photo on the mantel. “The operator! What do you want?” he replies to the unheard voice on the other end of the line, and the conversation goes on for a page and a half in the script.

And while the audience never hears a word of what the operator says, or indeed what any of the other voices say in the two other phone calls that take place in the course of the play, it is interesting that in the revised edition of the script, Thompson has written complete dialogue for both sides of the conversation, dialogue which presumably will be heard only in the mind of the actors on the stage. In an introductory note, Thompson explains that when the play was revived on Broadway, James Earl Jones, who was playing Norman, was the first actor who ever asked him what was being said on the other end of the phone. “So I wrote it for him,” Thompson says. “Use it if you like,” he went on; “don’t use it, if you don’t want it.

Jones’ request is indicative of what they call in the “acting business” his process. There is a good deal of acting theory that suggests that what goes on internally in the actor’s mind and imagination has a direct effect on what goes on externally out on the stage. What the actor is thinking affects what the audience is seeing. A term often used to describe this phenomenon is sub-texting.

I remember some years ago rehearsing an original one-act play about a married couple on their way to the emergency room because the husband was suffering from chest pain which may or may not have been a heart attack. Early on in the rehearsal process the director had us, as our characters, verbalize aloud what we were thinking in between our lines of dialogue. “Sub-text,” she would demand as we spoke our lines. “Keep sub-texting.” And later in the process, when we were no longer verbalizing our thoughts, she would still keep encouraging us: “Sub-text.”

This was only one of the many exercises directors and actors use to create the internal foundation for performance. Directors are fond of telling actors, especially student actors, to move from one place to another on stage, and then asking them to come up with some motive for the movement. “And don’t tell me, because I told you to,” they like to add. There needs to be a reason for the move, and that reason needs to be in the actor’s mind, even if nowhere else.

We create a back story. Sometimes it’s something as simple as what one was doing prior to one’s entrance; sometimes it’s as elaborate as a detailed biographical sketch of the character one is playing. One actor I know, playing Rita, the heroine in Craig Lucas’s Prelude to a Kiss, showed up with a notebook filled with the story of “her” life. Moreover, some of it she felt was so private, she wouldn’t let any of the rest of us see it. After all, none if it was anything any of the other characters in the play would have known, so why should the actors playing those characters?

We improvise. We create scenes for our characters to interact in so they can and come alive outside of the scenes written by the playwright. We imagine what our characters would do in these new situations, how they would behave. What would the cantankerous Norman Thayer do if a salesman showed up at his door? He keeps asking his wife if she would like to play Monopoly, for example. Just what would a Monopoly game between the two of them be like? Okay, why not have the actors play one in character? One of the rehearsal suggestions in the script of the popular improvisational theater piece Tony and Tina’s Wedding directs the cast to go out for a night of bowling and stay in character for the evening.

Exercises such as these help an actor to create multi-dimensional characters. There is a famous old treatise on the subject of fiction called Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster, in which he makes a distinction between what he calls “flat” and “round” characters. Flat characters are one-dimensional. The more developed a character, the rounder that character. The more dimensions to the character, the more that character is like a real human being. Sub-texting aims at getting at those added dimensions. It is a method for rounding out a person who is as real as possible from a bunch of words on a page.

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About Jack Goodstein

  • s13cybergal

    Very interesting view into how acting is done. I’ve often wondered about the one-sided conversation from the actor’s side of things.