Using Substitutions For Realistic Emotions

The more traditional way to use substitutions to create realistic moments in scenes and monologues is to remember a similar conversation you may have had, from your past, which had the same kinds of emotions and feelings, and then go from that conversation, to your lines.

For example: If I was going to play Hamlet, and had to say the famous, “To be, or not to be” speech, I’d work very hard at trying to find a time in my life when I was wondering what life was all about. I’d try to remember how I, myself, would talk about living and dying, about the possibility that life can be crazy, that maybe it would be better just to end it.

I’d study the famous speech, and try and not only re-write it in my own words, but I’d try to just talk from the top of my head about the same subject.

I might say, “God! Why are we ALIVE? I mean, isn’t that all any of us really wants to know?” I might say my first words very exasperatedly, almost sarcastically, like I’m exhausted with the thought. I might be sighing as I say this rather dramatically. Then I’d really noticed how I said this, and I’d go right back to my memorized speech, “To be or not to BE…THAT is the QUESTION!” I’d say it just as sarcastically and exhaustedly as I’d said my own contemporary lines. Whenever you’re using substitutions in this way, especially with really famous lines, it’s important to just totally forget how you’ve heard other famous actors say these words, take all of the formatting out of the lines (expected pauses, beats, commas) and just SAY the lines – exactly as you would the substitution.

I find substitutions especially helpful when I’m overacting a particularly emotional scene, when I feel I must “push” my words to create some kind of interesting delivery or arc. When I played Luybov in “The Cherry Orchard”, there is a famous line about, “Oh my sweet, dear, beautiful orchard! My life! My youth! My happiness! Good bye. Good bye.” This was always a very hard part of the play for me. I was always afraid I was saying these lines too grandly, and was uncertain exactly how I should say them, since I knew they were central to the play’s story and themes.

If I had this play to do over again, I would work very hard with substitution to create a truly original delivery of these famous lines. I’d think about how my family came from a beautiful farm in the middle of Kansas; how much I love it there; ow I get so emotional when I go back during wheat harvest, and look out at the fields my Grandfather and Grandmother used to work; the land that’s been in my family for four generations. I’d reconnect to what I always say whenever I go out there. Something like, “Oh God, I love it here so much. It’s so BEAUTIFUL! Look at that land! And the sky, such an incredible sky, isn’t it?” I’d try to remember something similar that I’d said, when I was back home on their farm. Then I’d go back to the original Chekhov lines, and I’d say them COMPLETELY differently. I’d probably say them much calmer, quieter, with more truth -- with real love, tinted with sadness, in my heart (and in my vocal delivery!)

These exercises, will of course, also help you come to the emotional reality in your scenes; because you can use the memory as a sensory substitution as well. In the case of the previous example, when looking out onto the fake “cherry orchard” which is actually, looking out at the audience, I could imagine looking out at the beautiful field across from my Grandfather’s farmhouse. I could literally (in my memory, or mind’s eye) breathe in the smell of ripe wheat, and look up at the huge Kansas sky. Getting into a similar emotional and sense (sight, sound, smell, energy) charged memory will affect the behavior of me, as a real person, playing a make-believe part, in a make-believe place.

Whenever I’m back in Kansas, I get very still and calm. As Luybov, I would then act the same way in the actual stage setting. Letting your body and your memory guide your actual live, on stage (or set) reactions is a much more easy way to make your choices, than any preplanning, preset emotional response, ever could. And the final effect is more realistic and natural. You get the picture!

Try it! You’ll like it!

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