Writers, quite frankly, don’t know everything about their works. They know more than you do, at least at the outset, and perhaps even on closing night. But they don’t know everything. This means that it is possible that even if they know more in general about their own play, you might know something specific that they have somehow missed.
How can they possibly miss anything about something they have given birth to? Because there are moments for every writer when his experience is that he is channeling his characters, when they speak without being asked to, when they do unexpected things. When this happens, you have as good a shot at understanding what is going on for them as the playwright does; more, perhaps, because you haven’t started with the preconceived notions that he may have when he sat down at his desk to write.
Since characters have multiple layers and motivations, everything the playwright thinks about a character may be true, but what you think may also be true. And sometimes it is entirely possible that the playwright thinks he wrote one thing when in fact he wrote another. I recently spoke with a novelist about one of his character’s motivation in a particular scene. His explanation took me entirely by surprise, as I interpreted the events very differently. His explanation may have been what was in his head when he wrote, but that doesn’t mean it’s what he put down on paper. If he had, I probably would have received that message on some level.
However, give the playwright credit (at least initially) for knowing what she was trying to do and keep an open mind about her opinions. Sometimes a playwright will include notes about the play in the playscript, either before or after the script itself. Don’t ignore these pages simply because there is no dialogue on them. Make sure you’ve looked at every page in the script so that you’re sure you’ve read whatever the playwright wants to share with you, and do this in the first week of rehearsal.
A week or two into rehearsal, do a little research about the play and previous productions. Don’t get obsessive about it, but if the playwright has been interviewed by anyone regarding the play, read his responses and give them consideration. Check out reviews of major productions and see if that cast was taken to task for not doing something or praised for being wise enough to do something else. Yours is a different production; you don’t need to imitate what was successful elsewhere. But sometimes a review will highlight what is particularly challenging in a play, and it’s a nice reminder of what you need to pay attention to. All plays have inadvertent “traps”, I’m convinced, and if you don’t know what the “trap” of your play is, you’re apt to fall into it. If the trap isn’t obvious to you or your director, a reviewer or a playwright may be able to point it out to you.
What do I mean by “trap”? Well, that’s a topic for another day . . .
See Researching the Role here.