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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Backstory

“The delicate brush strokes – which in rehearsal are pure gold dust”

The rehearsal room is the place where you make sense of all this. It's the place where actors and directors relate their own lived experiences to the imagined experiences of the characters in the play. Key to this is the notion of "backstory". It's usual meaning is the history of the characters before they enter the play, or at least a glimpse of that history. These glimpses are delicate brush strokes in the writing and some people argue that they had little significance to Shakespeare and shouldn't have for us, either as readers or interpreters. But in rehearsal they are pure gold dust. For actors they work as a currency of engagement with the characters and clues into the ways of bringing them to life on stage. They can help shape personality, motivation and attitudes to the others who become involved in their stories. These little shards of light can be used as the basis for building far more complex backstories. 

For instance: the text of ‘Macbeth’ tells us that Lady Macbeth had a child that she breastfed, but no hint as to whether that child is still alive or what became of him or her if they are. Was it a boy or a girl? Did it die as a baby or a little infant or grow up to be an adult? If the baby she loved and nourished at her breast died, what affect might that have had on the person she has become? No one playing Lady Macbeth could avoid thinking of this and letting it in some way shape their interpretation of someone who urges her husband to commit murder. What depth of feeling might there be behind the line:

“I have given suck, and know

How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.”

In ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ we learn from the text that Beatrice and Benedict have for a long time conducted a "merry war" with each other and there are several hints about what lay behind it. These hints need to be carefully analysed in the rehearsal room. Was an expression of love rejected or misunderstood? These are two intelligent and proud individuals who tell the world they loathe each other but must already be in love. It's vital to create their backstory. 

In ‘Twelfth Night’ when Sir Toby boasts to Sir Andrew that Maria "adores" him, the weak and gullible Andrew says "I was adored once too". Toby ignores this simple  but heartbreaking statement. Who adored him? How long ago? Most importantly, why did they adore him? In the same play we will never know the circumstances in which Olivia and Fabian fell out over a bear baiting, but the actors playing them have to know, because that will inform the way they speak to each other in the final scene. These touches of backstory can be seen as the delicate colouring of a great artist adding depth and interest to his narrative, but for actor and director they can also illuminate the way to interpret a character, or trigger an idea that can be developed in rehearsal and deepen a performance.

Does the death of her baby make Lady Macbeth more callous about life?

Did Benedict and Beatrice come close to having an affair?

Is there more to Sir Andrew than Sir Toby understands?

There is, of course, a line to be drawn. An actor’s job is not to write imaginary biographies of imaginary people, it is to be a presence on stage that an audience want to spend time with. Too much immersion in background might lead to an alienating self absorption that detracts from being completely in the moment, and being in the moment should be the constant state of performance. This vital balance between knowing all about your character and being your character lies at the heart of the director/actor relationship. Acting is a blend of subjectivity and objectivity. The subjective part is immersion in the needs, motives and desires of your character; the objective part is playing your role, your part in the story, understanding the function of your character within the bigger picture of the whole play. One of the principal jobs for a director is to be always seeing the events on stage from the audience’s point of view. An audience that hasn't spent several weeks preparing to be there; to help the actor extract from their identification with their character only that which is useful in communicating with the audience.

But this is not an absolute. It may well be that even something that can't be understood helps a performance anchor itself in reality. I once worked with an actor playing Emilia in Othello who had convinced herself that Emilia and Othello really had had a sexual relationship, as Iago casually hints at in an early soliloquy. That this was caused by Iago's jealous nature that Emilia herself speaks of, and that it made no sense of the plot, was neither here nor there - it helped her. Watching the performance it was hard for me to decide whether her decision added an enigmatic and interesting depth to some moments or whether it was simply confusing. 

Acting is a mysterious process and sometimes the intimate decisions an actor makes about backstory, although unobservable, help access to parts of their psyche that generate depth and fascination. 

Bill Alexander ©

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