One of the first things I do when directing a play is have every person fill out a character analysis. Yes, they do think they’ve stumbled back into high school, and some are none too pleased about it. But fact is, you can’t possibly play a character convincingly if you have no idea who the person is. I ask the actors to figure out what drives their character—his wishes, dreams, fears, favorite food. Her height, family makeup, past regrets, and proud moments. Down to the most minor character, they can’t go onstage until they know what that person would do in the moment.
It’s called backstory, and everyone has one. Recently, one of our lead actors was having a difficult time getting into his role. He found his character boring. So, being a writer, I got busy. I made up a backstory. A really good one. A really, really not boring one. One anyone would have fun developing into a real person on stage.
It got me thinking. That actor couldn’t see the backstory. He only saw the words written on the page right there. He had no idea where his character had been, what he’d done, and how those things had affected his life. Thus, he had written off his character based on the little evidence he had.
And we do the same. In real life, with real people. We look at the evidence in front of us, and we make a judgment. Perfectly put together? She must have been blessed with a perfect life. She must think she’s better than me. She must have never had to struggle like I have. And boom—she’s instantly not my kid of person. With no real idea of her backstory.
Not so perfect? Maybe the woman who just smacked her kid upside the head in front of you in the Walmart line? Well, we know how to categorize that kind of person too, don’t we? But truth is, we don’t have a clue. Her backstory may be something you’d never want to read in a novel, let alone live. Ditto the young man who stole your gas card and filled up five of his best friends’ tanks. Or the young woman trying to learn English and get a job with minimal success. Or the cheerleader you think is a snob.
We don’t have a clue. So why do we act like we do? Because categorizing is easier than learning? Because it makes us feel better to compare? Because we’re human, and we have our own story? Yes, all of the above. Which is why we need a reminder sometimes.
“The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16.7) I can’t see someone’s heart. With no Steve Jobs anymore, who’s going to ever come up with the technology to let me? So possibly, I should wait until I have a person’s backstory to decide what I know is true. All the world really is a stage.