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Playwriting Exercise: Subtext

Spectators come to the theater to hear the subtext.

– Stanislavski

Subtext is a glorious medium. It adds depth – there’s the conversation that two characters are having, and there’s the conversation underneath the conversation the two characters are having. The meaning behind the words.

Bell Work Prompts

Use these prompts to create routine in your classroom. Establish that when students enter, they pull out their journals and respond to the prompt be it a self-reflection exercise, writing a monologue, or writing down an observation. Set a time limit for your bell work. No more than 5 minutes.

Self-Reflection Prompts

How would you finish each of these sentence starters? Write for five minutes

  • I firmly believe…
  • I see myself as…
  • I think others see me as…
  • I see the world around me as…
  • I most want to improve this about myself.
  • The areas I am strong/weak are…
  • I am self motivated when it comes to…
  • I am unmotivated when it comes to…
  • I would like to get better at…
  • My biggest strength/weakness in life is…
  • My biggest strength/weakness in school is…
  • My biggest weakness in school is…
  • I am most proud of…
  • I am not so proud of…
  • I see myself in one year doing…
  • I see myself in five years doing…
  • I see myself in ten years doing…
  • I see myself in twenty years doing….
  • I fear… I wish… I love… I hate…
  • The best birthday I ever had was….
  • My biggest mistake…
  • I want more than anything to…
  • I always speak up about…
  • I never speak up about…
  • I have a big problem with…
  • I have no problems with…
  • Failure is part of life. Do you agree or disagree. Why?
  • Money would make my life better. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  • Love is forever. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Automatic Writing Prompts

Get your thoughts on the page on one of these topics. If you get stuck, write about that. If you don’t like the topic, write about that! The aim of an automatic writing session is to keep writing for the entire time without stopping.

  • What makes you happy? Mad? Sad?
  • What did you do last night?
  • Is TV bad for you? Why or why not?
  • Computers
  • My favourite/least favourite class
  • Jealousy
  • My Ideal Television Show is…
  • Friendship
  • Fast Food
  • Cafeteria Food
  • Family
  • Fear
  • Dating
  • Peer Pressure
  • Smoking
  • Sports
  • Clothes
  • Being Lost
  • That Drives me Crazy
  • The perfect vacation
  • My favourite/least favourite holiday
  • The best food/worst food ever
  • My favourite song/least favourite song
  • Birthdays
  • Things that scare me
  • Things that make me laugh
  • Strangers
  • War/Peace
  • Confidence
Monologue and Scene Prompts

When using monologues and scenes for Bell work focus on the form. Make sure they’re writing monologues in the first person, that the character is named, that there is a defined listener. For scenes, focus on the two person, one location scene. Bell work is perfect to get students to practice the playwriting form without pressure.

  • Chris pulls Terry into an empty classroom. The first line of the monologue is “I have something important to tell you.”
  • Jim/Jane stands in front of a mirror. He/she is getting up the nerve to ask someone out. What do they say?
  • A girl prepares to tell her best friend she kissed her friend’s boyfriend.
  • A girl/ boy prepares their story for what happened to the family car.
  • Write a monologue in which a teen is trying to explain why he/she hates his/her stepdad.
  • It’s the day after the end of the world. There is one person left. Who are they? What do they see? What do they want?
  • A student imagines what they would say to their bully.
  • Write a conversation between two ex-best friends. What do they say to each other? What do they not say?
  • Write a conversation for two friends. Friend A got the part she wanted in a play, Friend B didn’t.
  • If Sprinkles could talk. Write a dialogue between you and your pet (or the pet you would like to have) if your pet suddenly could speak English.
  • A conversation between two students. One is trying to convince the other to cheat.
  • A son tries to tell his dad what happened to the car.
  • A student tries to get her teacher to change her mark on a test.
  • Celebrity Conversation. A celebrity (actor, musician, model, socialite – dead or alive) walks toward you. Write out the conversation you would have with them. What have you always wanted to say? What do they say?
  • Two people are stuck in an elevator. They don’t like each other. The elevator stops.
Observation Bell Work

To observe is to look specifically at people, places and things. Observation is a great tool for an actor to have – they can use their observations in their character development work. Playwrights can use observation to come up with play ideas. Establish a routine of observation and have students write down one observation in their journals based on a specific prompt. For example:

  • Monday: Observe what someone is wearing in the halls. Describe the outfit from head to toe.
  • Tuesday: Listen to a conversation and write down what you hear. What’s the tone of the conversation? Is there any subtext that’s implied but not stated? What’s the relationship of the two people in the conversation?
  • Wednesday: Observe a conversation that you can see but can’t hear. Decide on what’s being said based on the body language.
  • Thursday: Observe a classroom using the five senses. What do you see, smell, hear, feel (textures) and taste? What conclusions do you come to based on your observation of the room?
  • Friday: Look out the window. What do you see? Would you rather be outside right now? Why or why not?

Download all of these exercises for use in your classroom!
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