To an actor or director, subtext is a word for all the unspoken thoughts, feelings and motivations a performer brings to his or 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 businessperson calls her fiance from her hotel room out of town.
"I miss you," she says.
Does she say it with her full attention, or with one eye on cable news? Is she thinking about a potential client in the bar? Is she seductive, sleepy, or rushing him off the line? The same words can be mouthed from an infinite range of intentions.
The subtext always expresses our deeper motivations, the "under the table" and subconscious agendas that truly run our lives. This is the level of communication we sense when we are "reading between the lines." Just as characters in the movies 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, and sometimes turn to personal growth or spirituality to seek understanding. We soon learn by experience that even small changes in our subtexts can produce major changes in our life stories as well.
Engraved on a small bronze sculpture of a writer's pencil that sits on my desk are the words of Jean Renoir, the great French movie director and son of the celebrated impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
"One only ever makes one film in his life," said Jean Renoir.
I bet this is as true of life as it is of 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 has to offer from the same set of intentions. Nothing ever changes.
One of the greatest gifts of personal growth is the power to become aware of subtext. Here is a simple technique I practice:
Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings especially in times of stress. Ask: "Where am I coming from?" Repeat this question over and over for every answer you get, until you sense a bottom line. That is subtext.
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