San Diego Awhile back, I wrote a feature about D.J. Sullivan, who has taught acting in San Diego for 40 years. I couldn't let her get away without some thoughts on her favorite topic: subtexts.
"You see them all the time in real life," she says, "but not often enough in theater."
Park bench: a man smiles, says, "Nice day" to the woman next to him.
"It is," she replies. Yet somehow you sense she's having anything but.
Or the clerk at the checkout counter asking a woman, "Need help with those groceries?" -- and deep down thinking, "Omigod, it's her! Will she even notice me this time?"
Unspoken thoughts may influence how he phrases the question or how he moves. And if she says "yes," which part of him responds? The guy supposed to carry groceries, or the deeply smitten soul?
"Generally speaking," says Sullivan, "the subtext is what's happening beneath the dialogue. It can have nothing to do with what's being talked about at that moment. A character's like an iceberg. The tip is the lines. Underwater's all this other stuff.
"Many actors, and not just beginners, think if they read a script five times and do 'character analysis' -- likes and dislikes you can drum up in minutes -- they'll know what's going on. They assume the playwright's made everything clear. But that's not true. Playwrights create a form. They depend on actors to add layers and colors and textures and breathe life to their words."
In Yasmina Reza's Unexpected Man, a woman and a famous writer ride on a train. She loves his novels and wants to talk but is reticent. Except for a few lines, the play takes place in their thoughts. At one point she says that conversations are "meatless, because the meat of a conversation obviously doesn't lie in what's actually being said."
"That's it," says Sullivan, "the meat's in the subtext! If the audience wanted only the words they'd stay home and read the script."
San Diego's most legendary example happened 40 years ago. Jack Aaronsen won an Atlas Award without uttering a syllable. He played the Old Jew in Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy at the Old Globe. The 70-year-old man sits on a bench in a Nazi detention room. As people passed, or denied the possibility of concentration camps, Aaronson reacted in silence.
"You could read his mind," says Sullivan, who was so impressed she asked Aaronsen his secret. There wasn't one, he replied, just the "work": pages and pages of notes in his script, describing what the Old Jew was thinking every second.
Sullivan had a role in Raise the Titanic. The movie was a "clunker," she says, but the shooting ranks among her favorite experiences. Between takes, she had an ongoing conversation with Jason Robards Jr. about his process.
First, he said, he read the play at least 50 times out loud. He'd read it until he made contact, he felt, with its core.
"When I start to cry," he said, "or my stomach gets tied up in knots, I know I've hit the mother lode."
Then he'd begin writing: undercurrents of pain, humor, emotional weather. Nothing was too trivial. No avenue unexplored. Careful to avoid labels, which lead to generalized acting, Robards constantly asked how his character's mind worked -- and what it was working on each moment.
After mapping inner terrain with voluminous notes, Robards would reach a second takeoff point. He'd set the writing aside -- rarely looking at it again -- and dive into the character.
Robards was always concerned, says Sullivan, that the audience could read what his character was "really thinking."
By writing everything out, Robards made conscious his character's unconscious thoughts and feelings. Then he internalized them and moved on.
Sullivan began teaching acting in 1967, the year Aaronsen won the Atlas Award, and always has students write out their subtexts. For beginners, she assigns Gene Bua's "Getting Better," a 13-line conversation between a man and a woman. They're in a psychiatrist's waiting room for the first time.
Sullivan first has students just read the lines ("Nice day"; "Been coming here long?"). Then she has them write at length, underneath the lines: What are the conflicts? Who are these people? And -- David Mamet's famous question -- "Why now?"
In class, Sullivan has two actors sit side by side, not looking at each other. One reads the subtext for a line, taps the other, who reads the next subsection.
The exercise concludes with a third rinse: the actors sit face to face and add "relationship." How do the characters relate to each other? "When they just read the lines it's boring," says Sullivan. "But add subtexts and relationship, and suddenly they've got some things going on."
Whose work does Sullivan admire today? The usual suspects: Robert DeNiro, the French genius Isabelle Huppert, Judi Dench, who said, "Good acting is not the things you say. It's the things you don't say. It's like in watercolor -- it's what you leave out that's most important."
Sullivan loved the cast of the Old Globe's Two Trains Running: "I cried at the end. Those actors: underneath it all they knew their characters completely!"
When Jimmy Smits won a SAG Award for NYPD Blue, Sullivan -- a member of the national board for 30 years -- praised his subtexts at the ceremony. "I never knew what they were until I did the show," he said to her astonishment. "Dennis Franz taught me."
Franz, who played Andy Sipowicz, began the series with lengthy dialogue calculated to make him likably unlikable. As the show progressed, the writers realized that he could tell the story without words. "After a while," Smits said, "they rarely wrote speeches for him. You could watch his face and see what he's thinking -- because he is thinking."
Franz had a clause in his contract: the day after the initial read-through, he required the actors to discuss what was going on beneath the words. Many in the cast found this table work odd at first, Smits included, since most television is just surface entertainment, without subtexts. People are who they are, especially in sitcoms. They have no inner lives.
Sullivan teaches subtexts "little bit by little bit." Actors who have done the work, like Robards, dig a deep pool for their character. Once they've filled in the pool, they walk away. They can dip into it for acting choices: to show "a side, a layer, a reversal or contradiction, a deepening."
The pool remains, but specific choices must change. One of the hardest things to teach, says Sullivan, is letting choices go. Onstage, actors must react to what's happening this second. "How they express subtext has to change from night to night. It's woven into their reactions and words. A choice that worked one night could poison the next. This is hard to teach and one of the most exciting things about theater."
Sullivan loves to quote Frank Langella (who can make this statement, she says, "because he knows his subtexts"): "I have a sense about acting in the theater: there is no right. There's only the truth. Each night is a different night. Each night I bring all sorts of things I didn't have the night before. I don't believe in hanging on to moments. I don't believe if something works beautifully on Tuesday you should try to recreate it on Wednesday. The point to me about acting is it's a moveable feast."