The Secret of Subtext


To an actor or director, subtext is a word for all the unspoken thoughts, feelings and motivations a performer brings to her role. Subtext is always unspoken, yet it is the most eloquent aspect of an actor’s performance coloring every speech and action. But subtext is not to be found in the script. It comes from the actor’s unique interpretation of the story, mined from personal memory, life experience, and imagination. That is why the same script or play can be performed again and again by different actors and still remain fresh.

A musician calls his fiancee from a tour date on the road. “I love you” he declares to her. Does he say it with his full attention, or with one eye on online poker? Is he planning a date downstairs in the bar? Is he wanting to flirt with her, provoke her, or rush her off the phone? The same words can be said with an infinite variety of intentions.

The subtext always expresses our deeper motivations, the ‘under the table’ and subconscious intentions that truly run our lives. This is the level of communication we sense when we are ‘reading between the lines’.

Just as the characters in a movie know very little about the underlying intentions that drive them, we don’t generally start out aware of the power of our own subtexts in our lives, sometimes turning to personal growth or spirituality to seek understanding.

We soon learn by experience that even small changes to our inner lives changes our life stories as well.

Inscribed on a small bronze sculpture of a writer’s pencil that sits on my table are the words of Jean Renoir, the great French movie director and son of Pierre Auguste. ‘One only ever makes one film in his life’ said Renoir. I believe that is as true in life as it is in movie-making. It is a reference to the power of subtext.

Without the ability to discover and change our personal beliefs, feelings and conditioned thinking, we repeat and respond to every experience life offers us from the same set of intentions. Nothing ever changes. Fortunately one of the gifts of the spiritual journey is the power to become ever more conscious.

Here is some technique I practice.

Pay attention to what you are feeling. Listen to your thoughts, and beliefs. Notice if what you are thinking is original with you, or part of conventional wisdom and hand-me-down thinking. Even though I was raised in a small village in Northern Quebec, both my parents loved and admired the American President Kennedy. No surprise that at ten years old I was already identifying as a proud Democrat, never mind that I knew nothing of politics, and, oh, yeah, we were all Canadians. That’s a hand-me-down choice.

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