Creating a Backstory

Michael Armenia in the role of Federzoni, the lens grinder, in “Life of Galileo”, 2013.

Federzoni is a lens grinder. That’s about all Bertolt Brecht gives us in his play, “Life of Galileo” which was written in 1938. Although from the text of the play, we can surmise a few things more, notably that he is a student and assistant to Galileo Galilei, the protagonist. And unlike Galileo and other assistants, Federzoni cannot read Latin. Yet, with no formal education, he is passionate about learning. So, who is Federzoni and why is it important that we know such a trivial character?

Federzoni isn’t the easiest name to pronounce merely because it isn’t familiar. As it is all that Brecht gave us, let’s give him a first name and call him Enrico. You know what? Let’s take it a step further and give him a nickname.: Enni or Enny or perhaps Rico. I did not do this much when I played Federzoni in 2013. But, I did create a backstory, just enough to give an identity or individualization for a character whose stage presence was brief.

A lens grinder naturally grinds glass. And Galileo knew Enrico was one of the best lens grinders in all of Venice, making eyeglasses fashionable since their invention in Italy at the beginning of the 14th century. Enrico was skilled at his craft, but everyone makes mistakes. One day at the grinding wheel he was distracted and the wheel propelled fragments of glass into his right eye, blinding him. And so I wore an eye patch as a physical manifestation of the story and this gave the character a distinguishing feature. What made this skilled lens grinder lose his focus (the pun is only partially intended)?

It was his passion for knowledge and learning. He was a true philosopher – he loved (philo) wisdom (sophia). But without a formal education, the best he could do at the time was to work with Galileo and vicariously satiate his hunger for a universe revealed by Copernicus to be heliocentric. He did not read the works of Copernicus in Latin, but he had read De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi (On the Infinite, Universe and Worlds) written by Giordano Bruno in 1584, which among Bruno’s other works was the most damaging to the world view of the Catholic church.

[Bruno connected Copernicus’ heliocentric theory with the idea of other populated worlds orbiting other stars. So, not only was the earth no longer the center of the universe, ‘man’ was no longer at the center of the universe. Vatican alarms went off! You can just imagine theologians pacing: “And what of man’s God and the savior? Was Jesus Christ the savior for other people on an infinite number of worlds? Are their other saviors for these worlds? The Bible doesn’t speak of these worlds, only man and our world. And the Bible is God’s word. So, no! This heresy cannot be allowed. ” Copernicus’s works were not prohibited by the Vatican, but their teaching was. Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. Galileo recanted and was put under house arrest.]

Let’s now conclude as much of the backstory that I gave to Enrico. Although Bruno had written many works in Latin, he had also written a number of dialogues in Italian, his mother tongue. For he truly believed that in order to effect the religious reform which he desired, his work needed to be accessible by peasants and farmers as much as the clergy and scholars. The concepts in De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi , one of Bruno’s dialogues that was indeed written in Italian,absolutely fascinated Enrico. The day after he first read the dialogue he could not help visualizing these other worlds that Bruno suggested. Even at the grinding wheel these thoughts dominated. While his mind’s eye saw visions of world’s revolving around what had been previously thought to be the ‘fixed’ stars, his real eye saw shards of glass as his hands relaxed and slipped off the wheel. One could say (to corrupt a phrase from another brilliant man not yet born at that time) he ‘saw a universe in grains of sand.’

Creating a backstory can be a formidable instrument in an actor’s process of forging a character. No matter how large or small the role, there is infinite room for a backstory; limitations exist only in the actor’s mind. In fact, the smaller the role, the larger the backstory should be. Non-speaking characters should have the largest backstories – at least, that is what I would encourage my cast members to explore throughout the rehearsal process. Write it. Draw it. Paint it. Sculpt it. Talk about it. What results could be described as magic; with an audience having no knowledge or sensory contact to any backstory, they are still affected by it through the actor’s performance. In the alchemical process of creating a character, the backstory is the philosopher’s stone added into the alembic while the heat (energy) of an actor’s work is applied. The backstory once instilled in the actor’s imagination is transformed on stage into authenticity, belief, truth – all which can be exuded merely through a posture, a glare in the eye, a facial tic, or her gait as she exits stage left.

There’s no end to a backstory. It can be transformed into a work of art. I’ve taken one to that extreme. A backstory of a very minor character in a tense drama was flushed out into an epilogue, and finally into a short play called A Streetcar Named Napoleon.

So, who’s your character? Write your story. It doesn’t need to live on the written page or in a blog (although that could enhance the effect). A home in your imagination is all that’s required to bring magic to the stage.

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