Not everything in a script is going to be self-evident or otherwise within your knowledge base. This means you have to do some research.
I am surprised by how many actors don’t do the research necessary for their roles! They will go into opening night not understanding a word, a line, or a reference. You need to understand the words and the world of the play, as well as what makes your character who she is. And that means research.
Fortunately, the internet makes this work a lot easier than it used to be. If you identify at the beginning of rehearsals what you aren’t sure about, you can answer most of your questions in short order, which will help guide how you use your rehearsal time.
So what sort of things should you look into when doing your research?
Word definitions. This may sound obvious, but I see too many actors saying lines that they do NOT understand and making no attempt to learn what they mean. If you can’t define a word in ten words or less, look it up. Don’t assume you know what the word means because of the context in which it’s used. Look it up so you’re sure you have an accurate understanding.
Sayings. Sometimes you’ll come across a phrase or imagery that seems peculiar. These are often common sayings, but being common doesn’t mean that everyone knows them, so don’t feel inadequate if you don’t. If you do an internet search, you’ll probably find some etymology for it. If nothing else, ask the rest of the cast. Sometimes I’ve just been particularly dense about a line, while my fellow actors know exactly what it means and are happy to enlighten me.
Double entendres. Sometimes words or phrases have two meanings (and the second one isn’t necessarily risqué!) If a word or phrase can be interpreted two ways, it probably isn’t an accident that it’s in the play. Consider what insight the second meaning might give you about the play or your character.
Names. Sometimes the playwright chooses a name that, because of its meaning or its association with a fictional or historical character, sheds some light on the nature or experiences of the character you are playing. It’s your job to make that connection, because if it exists, someone in the audience will, and they’ll know if something is missing from your characterization.
Place and Time. If a play takes place in a city, state, or country you haven’t been in, you need to learn something about that locale. If it happens in an era not your own, you need to learn what the social rules where then, and to understand what the politics and current events of that time were. Don’t assume that your own experience translates to places and times you don’t know. Any references to real-life places, people, or events should be explored as well.
Foreign Words. Occasionally foreign languages appear in a script. Sometimes the translation is provided, but sometimes it isn’t. Be sure you know what the words mean and how to pronounce them correctly (or incorrectly, if that’s appropriate to your role).
Occupations and Illnesses. Don’t assume that because your character is a teacher or a doctor that you know what that means to him. The odds are that someone has blogged or written a book about his on-the-job experiences. Teaching at a prestigious boarding school is different from working at an inner city school. Working in the Emergency Room is different from being a Sports Orthopedic for the NFL. Unless you share your character’s career, learning something about it will help you to understand both what attracted him to that field and what his daily experiences are like. The same thing goes for illnesses. Was your character once an anorexic? Read up on both the disease and recovery. Playing the lead in “Whose Life is It, Anyway?” Study both the right-to-die arguments and what it is like to be a quadriplegic.
Historical Accuracy and Context. If the play deals with a real historical events or real historical characters in fictional events, you need to do a LOT of research. The more you read about the life of your character or the circumstances of the play, the better your performance is apt to be. Believe me, the playwright has done extensive research, but it is impossible for her to include all the background information that informs her choices as a playwright into the text itself. So crack the books!
Adaptations. It should probably go without saying that if you are doing a play that is adapted from a book or has sprung on some level from a poem, you should read the source material. It SHOULD go without saying. But I’ll say it anyway.
See The Playwright’s Opinion here.