Acting Tech – Backstory isn’t the part of the story at the back of the script.

I like to create funny tests for all my classes and private clients to take.  I create fun little multiple choice questions like below:

The backstory is:

a) The part of the story at the back of the script.

b) A script about people with back problems.

c) A talking spinal cord.

d) Creating the character’s history of important events and situations prior to the moment the script’s plot starts. Filling in any missing elements that would help create a truthfulness to a performance.

Well, the answer is d.

However, if I gave the test prior to teaching the students/clients what a backstory was, the answer was almost always a.  Then I got to really thinking. I guess if I didn’t know I might have guessed a. It’s a logical guess.

Learning to craft a specific and interesting backstory is part of what is fun about creating a character. Allowing your own imagination to create the character’s history of important events: birthdays, first love, first loss, as well as why they think, feel, act, do everything up to this point in the story. It’s a powerful tool to bring each thought and feeling into truthfulness of speaking lines.

Let’s take this example. I have a wonderful young actress who is prepping a role where she has to be wearing a shark tooth necklace. So the necklace isn’t just for fashion (could a shark tooth necklace be for fashion?). The shark tooth must come from someone or from an important event that supports the script’s plot for her. In this case, it’s from the shark that killed her father.

Creating the backstory means taking these types of details and asking yourself questions about it. For example: How and when did she get the shark tooth? Who turned it into a necklace? Does she have a specific memory of receiving it?

That way when the script indicates she is talking and absent-mindedly playing with the necklace, it really isn’t absent-mindedly. It is something she has done for years and is comfortable with it. A very basic example, however I think it starts the conversation that I want you to be having in your mind.

Some favorite backstory questions:

1) Your full character name? Include a middle name.
2) Mom’s name and age and how do you guys feel about each other right now?
3) Dad’s name and age and how do you guys feel about each other right now?
4) Any brothers or sisters? Older or younger? What are their names? How do you guys feel about each other right now?

And then keep going? Any question that you can answer to help you flush out the backstory for your character can only help your performance.

When you come across something in audition sides or in a script, an event (my dog died when I was six or Rick was my first love) then create those events in your imagination. A creative backstory about those events. Or even something that seems like nothing at the time ‘he is wearing a blue sweater’. Ask yourself why blue?  Did I like blue?  Did I buy it? Did someone else?  Am I wearing it today because I’m in a bad mood and wearing it makes me feel better?  Am I wearing it because it belonged to my Dad before he abandoned me?  And so on, and so on, and so on. Until you fill in all the stories for the character from back before the first part of the script started.

Then as the script moves ahead, fill in what goes between the next scenes as well. The information that ‘backs up the story plot”.

Backstory.