Using Substitutions For Natural Speech

A great tool I learned about in one of my favorite Method classes was using “substitutions”. Using a substitution isn’t only for creating realistic emotions in a scene (which I have described in another post) – it’s also a simple, easy way, to break yourself out of pre-learned vocal patterns, and keep your lines sounding real and fresh. They can be great too, for delivering lines in classic drama, lines you’ve heard a million times (like the famous Hamlet monologue!)

What’s so fun, and so fascinating about using random substitutions, is that they’ll often give you ideas about how you can deliver lines in ways you’d never even thought. How do you do this? Well, let me try and give you an example.

Let’s say your line is, “I have so much to do today Charlie, I just don’t know where to start!” Maybe you’re saying it the same boring way each time. Stop yourself, and ask yourself, “How do I feel?” Then answer yourself out loud. Maybe you’ll say quickly, “I feel like a complete IDIOT, I don’t know…” Next, and very quickly, say your original line, “I have so much to do today Charlie…” with exactly the same intonation and pauses and emphasis, as you did your line about how you felt.

I learned that going back and forth with how I was feeling, in between some boring lines I wasn’t connecting to, really helped me deliver my memorized line in a fresh new way. Sometimes I’d laugh about how I was feeling, and then I’d put that natural laugh into my memorized line. It keeps your lines from feeling forced.

Of course once you begin using substitutions this way, you’re not going to be in the middle of a live performance asking yourself, out loud, how you feel. What this exercise WILL teach you is how to be emotionally present, and how to put that emotional, moment to moment, actual feeling (that YOU, the ACTOR, not you, the CHARACTER) are really feeling, into each and every word. Maybe the other actor is terrible and pissing you off, and you’d like to scream, “I hate working with you, you JERK!” If that’s how you, the actor, are feeling, wouldn’t it be better to put that emotional reality into your love scene, rather than calmly saying, “Good morning, my dear, how was your day?” If you said “Good morning…” with the same anger and frustration, the audience would read all sorts of subtext and the scene might suddenly come alive.

Food for thought!

About Kirsten Tretbar

Kirsten Tretbar is an acting teacher, filmmaker, and former actress. She received her MFA in Acting from USC in Los Angeles, where she acted professionally for many years.

Los Angeles + Kansas City