Subtext is your opportunity to "personally engage" with the role in a way that's "utterly unique to you," as Bella Merlin explains in The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit. She writes that if acting did not involve subtext, according to Stanislavsky the audience might as well just read the script.
But developing and playing subtext is not as simple as it appears.
For one thing, says University of California, Irvine, drama professor Richard Brestoff, "I find actors, when they discover subtext, they reveal it too much, so it's no longer underneath. Subtext is below the text, and when you put it on top it's no longer subtext." If you're making your subtext obvious to the other character, it's not subtext. "Subtext is a little more secret," he explains. "The audience might think, 'I don't think she likes him so much.' That's true subtext. You don't stick it in the other actor's face."
Agreed, but to what degree do you stick subtext in the audience's face if you want them to grasp the full depth and complexity of your character? Bill Howey in The Actor's Menu writes that subtext is vital to a complete character, and "if the audience understands the subtext, you have done your job." True, certainly, but I suspect that actors who—as Brestoff describes—make their subtext obvious to the other characters are in fact trying to make it obvious to the audience. More about that in a moment.
In The Actor's Wheel of Connection, Brestoff further explores the problem of actors revealing what they should be hiding. Say, for example, your lines are calm and gracious but your subtext is that you're feeling a lack of self-confidence with the other character. If you reveal your subtext by wringing your hands and stumbling over your words, you're playing it on the surface. "The actress should be trying to smother her self-doubt, so that the man cannot see it," writes Brestoff. "If some of her insecurity leaks out, that is an artistic choice and the degree of this leakage often defines the difference between a subtle and an obvious performance."
He adds, "Subtext is best revealed through behavior, not through displays of attitude." He suggests exercises to help you experiment with hiding versus revealing your subtext. To paraphrase his suggestions: Choose an emotional scene. Perform it 1) keeping all your emotion internal; 2) letting 20 percent of your emotion out but without planning when or how; 3) letting half your emotion out, constantly showing your feelings; 4) thinking of the scene as tragic; 5) thinking of the scene as comic.
In Richard Seyd's Craft column in the Aug. 2, 2007, issue of Back Stage, he discussed another way subtext is sometimes mishandled: "Many actors come to my workshops thinking subtext is more important than text. This is seductive because the actor owns the subtext; subtext is his or her creation. But text is far more important.... Let subtext reveal itself to you when justified by the text; don't load yourself up with subtext just to create an apparent (to you) rich inner life." Seyd advises starting out by assuming that the character "literally means what he or she says and does." (He goes on to describe his own "trigger" method of proceeding from there.)
Merlin writes that a natural process takes place continuously in human behavior: Someone initiates an action, we have a gut reaction to it, and we decide how to respond. Reactions and decisions are often unspoken. And so it goes in drama: action, reaction, decision. We need to look between the lines and in the pauses of our script to see how our character reacts and what decisions he or she is making about what to say and do. Merlin advises looking to the character's objective to determine "how much and what they choose to say" about what's going on internally.
I came across some wonderful examples of how to analyze text to create subtext in Scott Kaiser's Mastering Shakespeare. Some people believe there's no subtext in Shakespeare; the Bard's characters, after all, often confide their secret motivations directly to the audience. But Kaiser shows just how deep you have to reach inside your character (and, of course, inside yourself) to create meaningful subtext.
By analyzing several speeches, Kaiser explains how and where Shakespeare placed subtext into his text. But it's up to you to understand what that means on a visceral level and to play it fully and courageously. "It's one thing to put your secret thoughts up on the stage, but an even more difficult thing to put your heart, your guts, and your groin out there as well," he writes. It's not just a matter of intellectually understanding what's beneath your character's spoken words; it's a matter of knowing what that feels like in your body. He advises choosing personal images that affect you and being willing to put your total self into the subtext. This applies whether the playwright has spelled out the subtext for you or you have to burrow beneath the text to discover it for yourself.
Like Seyd and the others, Kaiser reminds us that "your subtext must be inspired by the text.... It shouldn't be pulled out of thin air and arbitrarily imposed upon the text." Nor should it come from "your opinions or feelings about the character." But once you've identified that subtext, you've got to personalize it. To a hypothetical actor who has identified a secret fear beneath her lines of dialogue, Kaiser exhorts, "Yes, but don't just say it—fill yourself with that fear!" Dare to be vulnerable: "You fill yourself up with those secret unspoken desires; you say them out loud and permit them to affect you; you inhale; you let them permeate the speech measure which follows," he writes. Then you're ready to play the subtext on a deep level.
Now back to the problem of cluing the audience in to your subtext without blatantly revealing it. The way for the audience to understand your subtext is for you to fully and deeply understand and experience it, not for you to work to reveal it to them. Kaiser explains it this way: If you truly fill yourself up with the thoughts and feelings that your character wants to keep hidden, your "private thoughts will nevertheless be revealed to the audience through [your] behavior, through voice and body, rather than the words." Trust that it will happen.
Some playwrights are famous for their subtext, which it's up to you to ferret out. In Advanced Acting, Robert Cohen describes subtext in Anton Chekhov's plays as "a combination of hinting, soliciting, wondering, proposing, and shading." He notes that August Wilson was a sort of modern-day Chekhov: His characters use language to imply "an almost infinite subtext." Bella Merlin recommends some play excerpts as exercises in plumbing subtext, including the scene in Harold Pinter's The Lover in which the husband and wife are role-playing a fantasy scenario in which they're strangers (though the audience doesn't yet know they're husband and wife). Merlin suggests looking at the scene carefully to "fathom the resonance between what's said and what's done, what the audience knows and what the other onstage character [doesn't]. Read [it] out loud and sense the inner energy of everything that remains unspoken."
All good writers—Pinter, Wilson, Chekhov, Shakespeare, even David Mamet, who insists that actors should simply play the lines as written, without infusing them with personalization—leave room for subterranean oceans of thought and feeling that actors must plumb and embody.