When Backstage Becomes Center Stage: Getting Our Stories Straight (Part 1)

There’s something about Sunday afternoons, especially in the winter, that calls for old movies. It’s a good day for time traveling and living in an older world for a couple of hours. Of course, in the world that made these movies, the intent was for people to pay attention to the stories onscreen rather than the ones backstage–to enter fully into the world of Casablanca without ever wondering about Humphrey Bogart’s love life or how the extras were treated on set. Occasionally, rumors may have made their way into headlines but stars and studios spent a great deal of energy protecting their images so the focus was on the story they wanted to tell, rather than the one they wanted to hide.

But because I live in the present, it’s a good time to go down wormholes of Wikipedia. As I watch the polished worlds and perfect backdrops of old Hollywood glamour, a quick search for the real-life stories of the stars often reveals the tragedies and turmoil going on behind the scenes. If I’m swept up in the jawline of Cary Grant, a quick little glance at his Wikipedia page snaps me back to reality. If I long for a life like Natalie Wood or Judy Garland, a little internet research wrecks that for me.

Stories onscreen have always been a bit of an illusion, a projection of how we want people to be rather than what they are. We have always agreed to lose ourselves in the fictionalized worlds of movies and television shows and to suspend our beliefs about reality while we watch.

But lately, the way we take in stories is shifting. We have a tremendous amount of access to the world behind all the scenes. We know about the business deals, the exchange of ideas and projects. We know about the personal lives of actors and directors and writers. If we really wanted to, we could probably even hunt down the Instagrams of the grips and caterers.

Even if we wanted to keep the illusions alive and watch media without any real-life interference, it would be hard to miss many of the headlines these days. The backstage world has taken center stage. The #MeToo movement is only the most recent effort, and arguably the most organized, in a long line of calls for greater transparency and accountability.

We are having new conversations about where to draw the line between the storyteller and the story. Many of us are wondering whether we can enjoy the work of people whose backstage lives are troubled or troubling.

It’s easy to argue about the range of opinions we all have about how much a person’s real words and actions should inform whether we support their work. Over the last week, I’ve found myself in at least three conversations about whether we should still be able to enjoy The Cosby Show.

But we can’t really argue about whether or not the world is changing. It just is.

Backstage is center stage. And everybody’s business is now everybody’s business. What we’re seeing in the entertainment industry is not just a reckoning for people who make movies and television: It’s a critical moment for any of us with stories to tell.

Most of us want to project a different story to the world than the one going on behind the scenes. But in a world of increased accessibility, accountability goes up too.

As individuals, this is a moment for us to think about our own integrity. We should be  wondering: Is the story we tell the world about who we are a true one?

For companies and organizations, it’s an opportunity to ask: Do the values we project out into the world match the ones operative in our offices and meetings? Many of the companies we work with know there is less room these days for giant discrepancies between the way we do business behind closed doors and the way we talk when the doors are open. Eventually, there might not even be doors.

In most movie scripts, the heroes resist the struggle in front of them for most of the story. They want to stay in the first act where things are easy and what they’ve always known. It’s when they let the story lead them into the unknown that the story gets good.