More thoughts from yesterday’s Porgy and Bess post: one of the complaints from the creative team and some of the actors is that there isn’t any back story for the characters, thus they seem one-dimensional. So the creative team is adding back story.
Back story is something actors do on their own, in order to more fully flesh out the character once they are onstage. You don’t depend on the script to give you everything about your character–some things you decide on your own. Yes, the actor needs a back story of some sort to bring a character to life, but that doesn’t mean the author has to provide you with it. Some of it is your own work! That’s one of the fun things about acting!
Normally, hints of back story are evident in shows, usually in the “I Want” song, where a character express what s/he “wants”. Some examples: Belle’s “Belle” in Beauty and the Beast; Elphaba’s “The Wizard and I” from Wicked; “It Might As Well Be Spring” from State Fair; “Where Is Love?” from Oliver. In Les Miz, we understand Fantine’s history from “I Dreamed A Dream”; we get Christine’s back story in Phantom of the Opera from “Angel of Music” (and the accompanying dialogue). In plays, you’ll get it too, like Abigail’s relationship with John Proctor in The Crucible. So I would guess most shows provide you a structure that you can base your back story on, as an actor. But if you want more, you have to come up with it, as you study the character, and then find ways to communicate that onstage. Theater would be mighty boring if every character’s entire life story was introduced before the plot could get underway!