The Relation of Text to Sub-text.

"Explaining a Confusion "

The relationship between text and sub-text is an on-going area of confusion for the actor. It’s confusing for a number of reasons –

  • Stanislavski process is traditionally taught in a way that makes it impossible to understand in simple practical terms
  • Writers refer to subtext in a way that is different to the way actors need to think about it (adding to the confusion). This is of some use to writers but no use to actors
  • When I last checked, NIDA teaches that sub-text in a scene is ‘anything that is not said/spoken’ – a definition that makes no sense in a practical world
  • Plus there are probably a variety of other confusions and myths about the meaning of sub-text.

‘Text’ in simple practical terms, from The Rehearsal Room point of view, is what the producer, writer and director want to see on the screen. It is the STORY. It is the combined outcome of the thoughts and actions of the characters that enable the story to be delivered in a way that the audience can understand why and how it happens.

The overall story has a sub-text. This is otherwise called the ‘theme’. It is the point the story makes – the moral of the story. It is also what the story is about BUT for the moment let’s not worry about that as it is largely the writer and the director’s responsibility. It is also a whole discussion on its own.

If the ‘theme’ is the sub-text, the text must be the ‘plot’ or the ‘story’.

When it comes to delivering a scene the actor’s job is get the story on the screen. Working out what that story actually is often poses a problem for the actor as it is easy to focus on what the character is saying rather than what is actually happening while the character is speaking. It is what is really going on during a conversation that the director wants to see on the screen. That is the real job as it is common for a character to say one thing while meaning something else. For example, at the end of “When Harry Met Sally” she says “I hate you, I hate you” but she means “I love you, I love you”. Understanding what the character means and what the real story is (that we want to get on the screen) is the actor’s task.

The Rehearsal Room defines that ‘real story’ as ‘what is unfolding between the characters in the scene while they are saying the dialogue’.

When thinking about ‘the story’ (that is revealed by the scene) it is useful to think about describing the conversation that is unfolding between the characters. If we describe the conversation we are actually focusing on what the real point of an exchange is rather than the content of dialogue. Two people may be discussing the football but what is really going on could be described, for example, as … “one character is trying to seduce another character who is resisting this attempt at seduction.” What the director wants to get plainly on the screen is the seduction. The topic of conversation might be ‘football’ but the real story relates to what is unfolding while they are talking. This story or conversation is a ‘test’ to explore the possibility of a successful seduction.

THIS IS THE CHARACTER’S CONSCIOUS REASON FOR HOLDING THE CONVERSATION. It is the main focus of the choices that the character makes. Any other consideration will be SECONDARY to this primary goal.

All those conscious choices are the TEXT.

So, where does the character’s subtext come from?

The Character’s Sub-text
Obviously someone who wants ‘to dominate’ will go about a ‘seduction’ in a different way to the person who wants ‘to please’ – BUT THE REASON FOR THE CONVERSATION WILL NOT CHANGE despite the different way it is approached. When this element of the scene comes into play it could be said that this determines the ‘nature of the character’ who is having the conversation.

A MAJOR contributor to the character’s nature in Rehearsal Room process is the character’s ‘need’ or ‘unconscious psychological desire’. It is a really practical way of creating behavioural patterns in the character. This is the element that brings a sub-text to the character’s choices. It relates solely to the character’s hidden or unconscious desires. To maintain a believable complexity it must always stay in the area of unconscious thought. If it moves into the area of conscious thought the performance will cease to be complex and believable because there will no longer be an unconscious element at work in the character’s decision making process.

That is why it is essential that character’s ‘need’ should NEVER interfer with the conscious thought process. That is why ‘need’ should NEVER affect the story outcome. We will always logically and consciously pursue our story goal despite our unconscious desire. The element that drives the story or ‘the reason for the conversation’ is conscious thought – logical thought. The ‘need’ will only ever affect the way we might go about our conversation goal IT WILL NEVER CHANGE IT.

That is why we say that ‘need’ should be ‘known’ but never ‘shown’.


  • ‘need’ or sub-text relates to the character’s hidden or unconscious psycholigical desires
  • ‘story’ or text is the logical, conscious reason that is driving the conversation.

And the character’s ‘need’ is never going to change the course of a conversation.

March 2009

Copyright © The Rehearsal Room 2009. All rights Reserved.



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