How to approach a director on set if you're not sure about the subtext of your lines
You simple turn to the director when he or she has a moment spare, you look them in the eye, and you say to them ‘I’m not sure about the subtext of my lines. Can you help me please?’
It really is as simple as that. If you do have an issue with fully understanding the script, you should absolutely let the director know and ask for clarification or help. Everyone on the set or in the rehearsal room wants the project you are all working together on to be the very best it can be – you, the other actors, the director, everyone – so asking for advice or enlightenment on a line or the subtext of a line is no shame. You didn’t write it (well, if you don’t know what it means then let’s hope you didn’t), so you aren’t expected to be able to work out every single nuance if it’s not completely apparent are there are subtleties within the lines. You actually gain much more respect if you are willing to ask questions and ask for guidance on a set or in the rehearsal room rather than just blindly carrying on. If you do decide to just go forth and hope that no one notices your ignorance then it will show, and at some point we will have to go through that oh-so awkward moment, late on in rehearsals, when the director asks you ‘do you actually know what that line means?’ You’ve been saying it for three and a half weeks – you’d better be able to bullshit pretty well to get out of that one.
All the same though, you should of course do your work on the script beforehand and analyse it as much as possible to get all the meaning, nuances, subtleties and subtext out of it that you can. And if a meaning doesn’t become apparent to you when you are reading it and going through it on your own, during rehearsals the meaning might suddenly jump out at you, or start to ease out when you are playing and experimenting with the lines as the days and the weeks go on; that’s part of the reason why we rehearse after all. But if you feel that you really have exhausted all possibilities and you just can’t get your head or heart around a section, line, word, whatever, then you should simply ask for help. Again there is no shame, it is done every day in the smallest fringe theatres to the biggest film sets, by actors who are all just trying to make the piece they are working on to be the very best it can be. So why should you be any different? Things always needs to be clarified in life, in the office, with people’s names etc etc. So it is a very strange thing that a lot of actors believe that you should pretty much have a performance ready to go and know everything about a script from the first day of rehearsal. If you do think that, where are you going to go in rehearsal? What are you going to learn? If someone has a great idea, is it going to be taken on, or are you just going to go blindly on, safe in your own knowledge (or indeed ignorance) or the script? So take ideas on, be open to the director, other actors, designer, anyone who’s got an idea that may help you and enlighten the character or situation, and go forward from there. Stuck again? Ask another question, and work through the problem again! It’s invigorating, and any director worth his weight will be open to your questions and discussions. If not, there’s something wrong with them, not you.