Starting with subtext

“There are two aspects to the technique of the [Stanislavski] ‘system’; one inner, where the mind and imagination create the thoughts and feelings of the character; the other outer, where the body expresses and communicates what is going on inside. It is no good my carrying imaginative and subtle thoughts and feelings inside me if they are not reflected in the minutest detail in my body.”

Benedetti, Stanislavski and the Actor, p. 13.

I’ve just begun work with a new crop of freshmen students, who are justifiably proud that they have been taught to understand the importance of creating a subtext, which is the first of the two “aspects” Stanislavski describes above: “the mind and imagination create the thoughts and feelings of the character.” I asked them, “How can you tell if someone has a subtext?”  Obviously, subtext itself is invisible, but its presence is manifested in the way Stanislavski describes in the second half of the passage quoted above: “the body expresses and communicates what is going on inside.” I would go farther (as does Stanislavski, in fact) and include the voice, face and eyes along with the body as the expresses tools that the actor can use to make his thoughts and feelings evident. In my approach to actor training, I refer to this as “behavior”: all the ways in which the face, eyes, voice and body can communicate and express one’s thoughts and feelings.

I go a step further in my approach, and stipulate that the ability to create behavior can (indeed, must) be cultivated and developed with the same kind of deliberate purpose that students invest in the cultivation of subtext through forensic investigation and imagination. Experience has taught me that behavior doesn’t just “happen.” It is a fallacy to suppose that the whole work of acting is to figure out the inner thoughts and feelings of the character, and simply trust that those will be evident to the spectator in performance. There are several reasons why this isn’t the case:

  1. For reasons of nature or nurture, some people are less expressive. We are taught that, in public life, it is appropriate to conceal our feelings rather than reveal them. Much of the experience of our early years makes us expert in the repression rather than the expression of emotion.
  2. For some, being onstage invites a certain self-consciousness or fear, which diminishes our ability to express ourselves freely.
  3. Being onstage arouses feelings of excitement, and the increased flow of adrenaline muddles our thoughts and distorts our behavioral expression. (Note that these feelings of excitement and the fear referred to in the previous item can happen at the same time.)
  4. The act of singing requires complex, coordinated and highly focused effort, and the effort of singing often produces unwanted tension and distraction that diminishes the ability to create dramatically expressive behavior.

Some fortunate individuals have a natural vividness of expression and feel easy about expressing themselves in front of others. For others, it will require diligent effort to reclaim the lively and vivid ability to express oneself that we were all blessed with as small children. And some lucky few may be able to sing with a minimum of behavioral distortion, remaining easy and authentic in the face, body and vocal delivery. For the vast majority of singers, this too must be reclaimed, and a patient, persistent regimen of conditioning and studio experiences will prove enormously beneficial.

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