The backstages of our own private Seahavens
The Truman Show's elevator scene as accidental metaphor for the impressive shell frequently surrounding chaos and inadequacy - we must demand more.
The elevator scene from the 1998 movie The Truman Show has been burned into my brain for more than 20 years, a scene that made me think deeply about the differences between appearances and reality, outsides vs. insides.
The Truman Show tells the story of a man who is the star of a 24 hour reality television show. However, he is the only person in the world who doesn’t know that he lives in a fake town. Gradually Truman and the viewer discover clues to the unreal nature of Truman’s world. One short but key scene in the movie helps to shatter Truman’s worldview when he tries to enter an elevator while trying to chase down an inconsistency in his world. The elevator door opens and… it’s not an elevator. Instead, it’s the entrance to the break room for the cast and crew of his TV show. We (and Truman) see the back stage, something the audience is never supposed to see. Back stage is more real than the front stage in Truman’s world.
When Truman sees back stage for the first time he is shocked, his eyes wide in disbelief. He doesn’t understand what he is seeing and he wants to learn more, but the powers controlling his “world” whisk him away from the scene before he can ask too many questions. Like Dorothy and her companions in Oz, Truman is essentially told to ignore who and what he sees behind the curtain.
Most of us live in a more physically genuine world than Truman’s. Our lives are generally not broadcast for public entertainment without our knowledge, not run according to scripts and direction by unseen puppet masters (at least not at a micro level) and at least 99% of the time an elevator door will open to provide access to a real, working elevator car.
Back stage is a real thing, though, and this idea has intrigued me since the first time I watched this movie. Behind every beautiful, strong looking front stage, or façade, there’s a lot of back stage support to empower the front stage, things like supplies, utilities, planning, supply chains, even public transport and gasoline stations that ferry people to and from the back stage to make the front stage look real, whether it’s a hotel, an office building, a manufacturing plant or a sports stadium. Even in a real theatre, you have the literal backstage areas holding active props and scenery, lighting, sound effects, staged actors, production assistances, etc., not to mention dressing rooms, wardrobes, and so on.
If you’ve lived in a house, you probably know this fact: the house’s exterior doesn’t always match the interior. The upper floors of a house may look beautiful but the basement might be an unfinished, untidy mess. You might see exposed studs, pieces of insulation that aren’t properly sealed and covered if you look in the basement. Maybe there are cracks in the floor or the ceiling is unfinished, exposing beams, pipes and wires and that’s why you never let guests enter your basement unless you’ve sworn them to secrecy.
Companies and organizations can be like this. You can have a breathtaking lobby and areas where the public can visit filled with charming and persuasive sales people, but workers could be stuffed into tiny offices and cubicles with poor lighting and ventilation, broken heaters, holes in the walls, creaky floors and ruined carpets. The organization itself could also be unhealthy with low cash reserves, high debts, weak revenues and soaring expenses. And all of this could be hidden by a spiffy appearance that would deceive the casual viewer.
Front stage and back stage thinking also applies to people: a gorgeous, graceful exterior could hide mental and physical illness, deplorable habits, a lack of intelligence and incompetence. External happiness can obscure internal misery. A slim individual could lack physical fitness and only achieve their appearance via unhealthy means. And so on.
I contend that back stages are not only present everywhere but they are vital to genuine, healthy front stages. After all, your shower and toilet depend upon miles of pipes and pumps to work successfully. Your cell phone battery only charges when connected to the vast, international power grid. Your food can come to you from thousands of miles away via a sophisticated supply chain network that could not have existed 100 years ago. And you may well work in a “back stage” role supporting some greater organization: most of us do!
The challenge that I see is when your back stage and front stage do not share integrity, honesty, robustness and competence.
Perhaps I’ve taken the long way around to point out the appearances can be deceiving. Clearly this is a problem that we must always take care to research and test, to ensure that front stage is the “real deal” and that we are seeing is representative of what we will experience. But rather than leave it there, let me instead extoll the virtues of a healthy and thriving backstage, or foundation, that supports the outside and gives it integrity. Let the backstage be filled with energy, support and smarts; don’t let it be hollow, ignorant and poison.
I’ve seen enough fake front stages, haven’t you? And if Truman, the ultimate innocent man, could eventually find out the truth, can’t we demand the same?