Today I have been working on back-story ideas for my character. By back-story I mean those aspects of a character's life created by the actor, which are not explicitly assigned to or denied them by the script. When my ideas are more concrete, I will share some of them. Right now, I wanted to talk about the idea back-story in general.
Not everyone uses the back-story exercise. Why do I?
One simple reason is that it's fun. I don't do it every time, and when I do, the level of detail varies. But that is the beauty of the back-story; as much or as little as you want.
Yet I am not just entertaining myself when I write a back-story. Such creations often add to my performances. How?
Everyone you meet in real life has a back-story. That does not mean they are conscious of everything they have ever felt, every moment that you see them. People do, however, consist of more than what is right in front of them. A spiritual weight is on the back of every person, and even the best of scripts can leave characters without such weight at times. Even if the script is perfect, an actor sometimes wants to get a notion of what has NOT been said. This is where back-story comes in.
I like to think of it as a backpack. If one wears a back-pack with nothing in it, they will walk in much the same way as they would without it. Fill the pack with canned food, however, and there is a noticeable change. It is inevitable. One's gait is different. One walks a bit slower. One's stance is altered. All of this because the back-pack is now full of items. We may not see the individual contents of the bag, but the accumulative effect is present all the same. Adding back story to a character and making it part of my performance adds that emotional back-pack full of goods, which cannot help but alter, and one would hope, improve my performance.
That is not to say that every single aspect of your back-story will directly influence your performance. No one is going to say, "judging by how that actor is climbing the stairs, he clearly wants the audience to know his character would, in theory, prefer Pepsi." Nevertheless, a back-story adds depth. Remember what I said a few weeks ago about "The space between the bars..."
Unless you are David Mamet, it is not intriguing to watch an actor spit out lines like a machine and walk around a stage, without any thought as to "why?" The use of back-story is a fun way to determine the origins of some lines, actions and status of a character, when the script is mum on the issue.