Game Library: “Text/Subtext”

Characters shifting quickly from Text to Subtext at a caller’s whim describes the essence of this game that invites players to unabashedly explore what lurks under their dialogue.

The Basics

An offstage caller facilitates the action variously announcing “text” and “subtext.” When text is the governing dynamic, characters engage in typical improvised dialogue. However, when “subtext” is cued, characters start to speak their previously unvoiced motives, desires, and thoughts. While characters speak subtext, their partners should hear and react as if everyday text was still being uttered. The caller continues to move the players and characters between these two communicative states for the duration of the scene.


Player A (the parent) and Player B (their teenage child) sit outside the high school counselor’s office awaiting their not-so-pleasant appointment. B exudes nervousness, while A struggles to maintain the appearance of calm.

Caller: “Begin with text.”

Player A: “… And you’ve told me everything I need to know? I don’t want to be surprised when we’re in there with the high school counselor.”

Player B: “How many times do I need to tell you that I’m not sure what this is about myself?”

Player A: “They don’t ask to meet parents – in the middle of a work day, no less – if it isn’t serious, Megan.”

Player B: “I know this feels like a big deal. You’ve told me that enough since you got the email.”

Caller: “Subtext”

Player A: (retaining an irritable vibe even though the content is now more vulnerable) “I just had high hopes for you. You’re not like your siblings. You could make something of yourself, if you tried.”

Player B: (responding with the previously slightly snarky tone) “I hate that look in your eye like I’ve disappointed you. Whatever’s waiting for me behind that door can’t be worse than that look.”

Player A: “I feel like I’ve failed you somehow…”

Caller: “Text”

Player A: “… he always gives me a hard time when I have to take a half shift.”

Player B: “I know, okay. I’m sorry having me is such a hassle…”

The Focus

There’s a rare opportunity in this dynamic to explore rich subtext in such a way that it goes from a subtle undercurrent one moment, to your overt utterances the next. Fully exploit the emotional journey such shifts enable.

Traps and Tips

1.) Honor the basics. The general rules of onstage secrets apply in this scenario. Improvisers should listen closely to the revelations of their teammates but not unduly comment upon or carelessly explode these discoveries as their characters. It can be tempting to grab at that cool dynamic your partner just introduced but give all the ingredients sufficient time to boil in the scenic pot before serving them up otherwise you’ll end up presenting something half-baked rather than patiently matured. It’s also extremely gaggy to just parrot back something you heard voiced privately. You’ll get a laugh, but it’ll likely prevent the scene from building to anything riveting.

2.) Explore the nuances. This particular game dynamic poses the worthy challenge of maintaining the façade of any established relationships while also potentially speaking subtext that has a starkly contrasting energy. To aid in this mind-numbing endeavor, strive to introduce and set your base moods quickly. If Player A hits the ground running with a frustrated petulance, it’ll be markedly easier to maintain this tone even as the subtext reveals something notably different. Exploring the distance between this primary textual mood and the ever-changing colors of the subtext provides much of the richness of the game. On a simpler technical note, take your time introducing new characters. If the stage is crowded, it’s less likely that clear POVs will be effectively established before you hit the first “switch.”

3.) Complicate the dialogue. The sojourns into subtextual musings clearly offer the chance to skillfully develop contrasts and contradictions. But don’t lose sight of the fact that the dialogue portions of the scene are now informed by this material as well. Keep your subtext active during the regular dialogue (just as you need to keep the dialogue tonality active during the subtextual sections). As the audience now has the context to read into your words and gestures, use this knowledge to your advantage. Both characters at our school office have revealed vulnerability as part of their inner monologues, for example, so it would be a shame not to see some subtle evidence of this in the scene proper.

In Performance

If you tend to gravitate towards more angry or argumentative hues, Text/Subtext offers a great vehicle for finding love and more culpability in your work. The same holds true for improvisers who default into commenting or cartooning patterns where text and Subtext are essentially one and the same. The physical mechanics of the game can take a little time to effectively incorporate, but the experience quickly reveals if you typically have little of interest operating under the surface of your dialogue.

Other games that explore similar subtextual terrain include Angel and Devil, Conscience, Inner Monosong (Monologue), and Stop! Think! (Find then in the Game Library here.) These formats can serve as helpful skill building steps on the road to the current game in question. You can also apply your calls to one character at a time – rather than the onstage cast as a whole – which can provide an interesting variation as you now can see text and subtext directly playing against each other.

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Subtext

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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