Kate Snodgrass & Writing Subtext Workshop


I went to Kate Snodgrass' "Writing Subtext" workshop at the Last Frontier Playwrights Conference shortly before the performance of my play. Took notes, thought about how I use subtext myself. I don't practice it as a conscious technique when I write-- though sometimes I do when revising. I'm of the "tap the subconscious" school while at the same time usually basing my characters and situations on real people and incidents that I have at some point observed (or occasionally read about). I tend to "hear" what my characters are saying and "take dictation" from them, and figure out what they are trying to do (subtext) by their verbal behavior in much the same way a reader/actor/audience would, working hard to keep up with them, deducing rather than defining a priori relationships. Revision is filtering out irrelevance and digression (though characters will generate irrelevance and create digressions when their scene partners seem to be "on to" their hidden or unconscious motives, and that stuff is signal, not noise) and arrange the beats and complications into a strong through-line.

Kate's example of subtext was "Hills Like White Elephants", the Hemingway story, which is short enough that Kate could read it aloud to the gathered playwrights and actors in about 10 minutes. Some knew it, many didn't: of those who didn't know it, about 1/3 didn't "get it" until others "explained" what is going on between the lovers as they wait for a train which will take the woman to a city in Spain where she will (or won't) have "an operation". I have taught this story to freshmen in remedial English, and 5/6ths of them don't "get it" until after they have kicked it around for awhile in discussion. As text, it baffles them. Told to act it, they'd be utterly lost, unable to play their actions. But after talking about it for a while they decide-- like the theatre people in Kate's class, in less time and with fewer hints-- that the man is pushing the woman toward an action which he is verbally "selling" as a small thing that will "fix" their relationship-- but they can tell that the couple's relationship is already doomed. The guy is treating her like a thing, and she has gone dead.

Contemporary kids are baffled by the idea of an unnamable abortion: if that's what the scene is about, why don't the characters Say So? In English class there are other terms used for this fictional technique, but a solid minority thinks it is a dirty trick: authors should just come out and say what they mean and not expect a reader to have to work to "get it"!

In the workshop, Kate points out that actors ITCH to stage this story, so spare with words and so rich with subtext. And audiences who have their suspicions confirmed as subtext unfolds feel empowered, wise, and almost like co-authors. Kate passes out a handout with exercises and suggestions for developing dialogue with strong subtext.

So during this workshop I'm thinking about the one act of mine being done at the conference, which is almost the opposite of Hemingway: Verbose, effusive, witty, full of expansive show-offy "stuff".

Here's the set up of my script about The Oldest Established Permanent Rolling Cast Party:

A first class compartment on the 11:08pm South Central commuter train to Brighton from London's Victoria Station. Two men, no longer young but appearing boyish in black jeans and black T shirts with old West End show logos on them, are seated facing each other, drinking beer from a collection of six packs piled on the seats beside them and at their feet. Jackets, caps, a couple of packages of crisps, a duffle bag and a backpack or two also litter the area. BRICK is burley, ALFIE lean and wiry. CAROL, a colorfully dressed but otherwise unremarkable American woman of approximately the same age as the two British men, opens the half glass door of the compartment, but hesitates in the corridor outside. The men spot the theatre program Carol is carrying and after a quick silent consultation urge her to join them in their compartment.

So to answer Irv's question: "Geralyn: Would you give the list a sample of text, and the subtext you---the author---expected to be played but which you didn't explicitly submit in the script?"

I expect the actors to "get" and play that 1) the guys are cooperating in putting on a show for Carol. 2) they are also competing with each other for her attention, and to define the triangular relationship that is developing. To do this, they must choose and play a series of objectives re: Carol e.g. befriend, seduce, amuse, tease, patronize, challenge, .... etc. Carol is on guard in this section, and her action is mostly limited to approving/opening up to or rejecting/ withdrawing from the direction in which the guys are pushing. But this "listening" role too must be an active series of choices-- or else she's a dull lump and they are boring expositors and the play is dead in the water. In the playwright-directed rehearsal I talked a little bit about this-- and the excellent actors made big choices and the text leapt into life!

I added the last sentence in the set-up and some few stage directions to the current draft to make it more likely that a reader will be alert to subtext w/o having the playwright to prompt him. (7/14/05)

and here's a link to my play The London to Brighton 11:08 aka The Oldest Established Permanent Rolling Cast Party.


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