If your improv is starting to feel one dimensional you may be suffering from a lack of detailed subtext. As text and subtext conflate and essentially become the same thing our choices (no matter how exciting or promising they might appear) can start to feel like Cartooning — merely stating our ideas rather than executing them with nuance and emotion. Stop! Think! is a dynamic exercise that can help strengthen our subtext muscles and quickly reveals when our scene work and characters are losing that delightful complexity that tends to mark the human condition.
Players obtain a central premise and may work in smaller groups all performing simultaneously or one group at-a-time in front of the workshop or class. The scene begins “normally” with players establishing the basics of the scene and communicating through everyday dialogue. At an opportune moment the instructor or Caller announces “Stop! Think!” and all on-stage characters must now start monologuing their inner subtext. These stream of consciousnesses continue until the Caller announces “Continue” when the scene returns to traditional action and dialogue exchanges. The scene develops with multiple subtextual interruptions until an organic ending is reached.
Players are inspired the choice of “Step-Siblings”. The scene begins with both players lying on their beds in their now-shared bedroom.
Player A: (breaking a silence) “I really like your posters. You have great taste in music.”
Player B: (a little cool, rolling over to read their book) “Thanks.”
Player A: (After a moment) “I was thinking of trying out for the basketball team. Do you like it?”
Player B: “Yeah, I’ve made some good friends there.”
Player A: “Maybe you could introduce me to them…?”
An awkward moment of silence.
Player A: “…if that’s not asking too much.”
Player B: “No, I can do that…”
Caller: “Stop! Think!”
Player A: “I think I’m coming on too strong. I just don’t really know anyone in town yet and if my own step-brother doesn’t like me this is going to be rough. Maybe I should just let this go and let him read? It’s kind of nice having someone to talk to, though. I’ve always been an only child with a room all to myself. And now I have a big brother to look up to…”
Player B: (overlapping and at the same time) “I know I shouldn’t be so grumpy. It’s not his fault our parents hooked up. He seems to be taking it much better than I am. This house is going to be so different without Mom in it. Dad just doesn’t get me, and I don’t know what to think of this ‘new woman’. He couldn’t have waited until after my senior year of high school…?”
Player B: “Look, I just want to read my book, if that’s okay with you…”
Player A: “Yeah, sure.” (after a moment) “Can I just ask you one more question…?”
It quickly becomes apparent in this game if there isn’t anything happening in the scene at the subtextual level, and it’s likely that players might initially struggle with the central dynamic if this skill isn’t already part of their improv tool belt. It is certainly foreseeable that there will be some trial and error so it can be kind to allow an unobserved attempt prior to bringing the exercise before the group. Be vigilant that players are striving towards active subtext and using this time to craft dynamic points of view and backstory elements. While some choices may remain as “secrets” ideally these internal monologues should also be reflected in the ebbs and flows of the textual (“normal”) relationship and scenic choices.
Traps and Tips
1.) Subtext moments shouldn’t become empty placeholders. Initially the “thinking” portions of the scene can feel a little overwhelming, especially if you don’t feel you have narrowed in on a deal as your character. The Caller should strive to set players up for success in this endeavor, allowing sufficient time for something to land before offering up the first subtextual challenge. Be on the look out for empty “thinking,” players circling unhelpfully around one narrow idea or filling time with nondescript language such as “I don’t know, I just don’t know…” If you see this happening some side-coaching is probably in order to re-establish the focus and intent of the exercise. Perhaps offer up some over-arching questions such as “How do you feel about sharing this room,” “What just happened before the scene started,” or “What do you really want from your scene partner?”
2.) Explore different subtextual energies and dynamics. Subtext tends to initially incline to one end of the spectrum or the other, and will often seem very snarky or bitter (“I hate everything about you and this situation”) or, sadly less often, full of unconditional love and adoration (“You are perfect in every way”). Look for all the beautiful variance and potential between these two positions. Subtext can be uni-directional, essentially in agreement with the stated text but felt at a deeper level of significance, or vari-directional, working in contrast or opposition to the text (think saccharine but insincere “Southern hospitality”). Sarcasm would certainly serve as a strong example of this latter approach but this energy can quickly dominate the scene in a way that diminishes the potential for finding nuanced details. (I would actually recommend encouraging actors away from a sarcastic approach in general.) Subtextual moments are also excellent opportunities for shelving new details, exploding CADs and launching the occasional curve ball if these devices are familiar.
3.) Don’t be polite when thinking. Trained improvisers can also struggle with the wall of sound that is deliberately encouraged when the subtext is cued and may try to kindly give and take focus in these moments with others onstage. Especially when you are in the workshopping phase of this exercise avoid such politeness as best you can. While the dynamic certainly isn’t about yelling over your scene partners, it is, by design, intended to be a little selfish. This is a moment for you to focus on your own deal and given circumstances without prioritizing what your partner may be brewing. It should feel and function like a monologue (or, perhaps, soliloquy if we want to be a little more precise). For the audience, the connections and disparities that develop from the characters attacking these moments are certainly a large part of the fun. Also, while you clearly want to apply any discoveries made during your thinking rants merely repeating these feelings verbatim as spoken dialogue when the scene recommences isn’t really honoring the gift the game.
4.) Start small. The more characters that are present for the scene, the more complex the subtextual rants and ramifications become. The scene tends to have a better chance of profundity and success when it has a more contained focus. For this reason, a dynamic relationship between two players tends to work well as an initial starting point. If you are playing with a larger “team” look to carefully pace your entrances so as to allow smaller combinations to share the stage whenever possible. Generous exits will help in this regard as well. Similarly, when calling the game there is a fine line between challenging the players with sufficient time to develop dynamic energies, and needlessly torturing them with voluminous subtextual opportunities.
5.) Develop your active listening. If players have found a comfort with this technique and are generally crafting interesting choices that are then informing and enriching the textual components of the scene, encourage deeper listening during the subtext cacophony. Yes, players should continue to exert the selfishness encouraged above, but it is also possible to look for themes, tensions and offers within your partners’ “unheard” monologues too. Players should avoid “hearing” such moments as the characters, but as improvisers should look for ways to subtly heighten and explore any gifts contained therein. Player B mentioned missing his Mom and wanting a more typical senior year of high school. These ideas might open new doors for Player A in the spoken scene that follows, although I’d caution that instantly grabbing something from your partner’s subtext can feel a little easy or cheap as opposed to shelving it and looking for a moment later in the action where it might serve a greater end.
There is a bit of an intentional clutter at the center of this game when all the onstage characters start to speak in an unorchestrated cacophony. As a result, I tend to use this game as an exercise or stepping stone to other subtext-focused frames that are a little more audience-friendly, such as Text/Subtext, Conscience or Inner Monosong. That being said, the foundational dynamic is certainly playful and dynamic and with some close attention to not overcrowding the stage (and perhaps having characters find gentle ways to share focus) the game certainly has clear promise.
Connected Concept: Cartooning