How to spot someone problematic

I’ve been mulling this blog over for a long time- months, if not years. This is a very tricky topic, because what pings one person’s radar will not necessarily ping someone elses’. It’s also very worth mentioning that sometimes behaviour that seems odd or difficult can be the result of neurodivergence, and folks who simply need help adjusting to social norms through lack of understanding should be given an amount of empathy (assuming a lack of harm to others). And of course, in some cases, there’s a good argument for rehabilitation of folks who have committed wrongs in the past (though as a community I do feel we’re a bit too quick to forgive sometimes, at the expense of victims). So, there’s lots of humming and hawing, on my part and on others, about the best way to discuss predators, misinformed oddballs, disagreements about good practice, and missing stairs in our community. 


This blog is intended as a thought exercise, not judgement. In improv, we quickly grow accustomed to feelings of freedom, community, warm and fuzzy good times, and laughter. It’s tricky to see sometimes that it doesn’t feel that way to others. It’s hard to believe that someone who is very nice to us personally, is a great improv teacher, is seemingly respected, could be causing harm to others. So, when should we be asking ourselves hard questions?


If someone makes you feel a bit odd, or a bit bad, and you can’t quite put your finger on why, this is a blog for you. If you’ve heard rumours but they just don’t jibe with your personal experience of someone, this blog is for you. If you’ve always had great experiences and are 100% sure nobody in your community is an issue, this blog is for you. And if you’re struggling to find your personal stance on how we as a community should proceed, this blog is for you. It’s a long one, but it needs to be. 


One of the first things to consider, in my opinion, is awareness. If someone has done something wrong, were they aware that it was wrong? Is there a pattern of behaviour? Are they open to discussing past issues, or are they immediately dismissive? If somebody has overstepped a boundary through ignorance, there’s an easy method of rehabilitation- we explain why whatever they did doesn’t conform to the standards in our community and why, and ideally they see what happened and change their behaviour. If somebody is fully aware that their behaviour is wrong, or even just frowned upon, and they continue, that’s a different conversation (and for me personally that person goes on my do not work with list).


A great example of this is whether or not we feel teachers should be allowed to date students. My personal opinion is that they shouldn’t, because of the inherent power dynamic between teachers and students. Some theatres do allow this though, and sometimes student teacher romances go on to be meaningful long term relationships that just happened to start in an improv class. This is a great example of where behaviour patterns are important. If a teacher meets a student they like in class, waits until the class has finished to start a relationship, and the relationship largely continues outside improv circles, that’s one thing. If a teacher is dating students regularly because they *like* the power dynamic, or is using their authority as a teacher or someone who casts shows to push folks into relationships or encounters, that’s very much another. The difference is awareness and repetition- if somebody in a position of power either isn’t aware that they have power, or is happy to misuse it, that’s a big red flag for me. 


Speaking of power dynamics, my second red flag moment often comes when I see how folks interact in groups. Are they a bit too nice too fast, for example sending students or colleagues private messages, giving them cute nicknames, generally making folks feel special? Are they giving extra personal attention to folks who seem shy or awkward? Do they have fawning admirers? Do they separate themselves from the group as an observer, for example commenting on the conversation (or scene within a scene)? Do they run secret classes or clubs? Do they regularly offer advice or hot takes on areas that aren’t their expertise? Does it feel like a lot of the focus in the room is regularly on them?


Any one or two of these things could easily read as a person just being nice, including folks, making personal connections. Certainly and one by itself isn’t reason for immediate concern. But if lots of these questions are pinging your radar, here’s your moment to stop and think. What kind of power or influence do things like these help a person build? How might they use that power and influence? Is there any counterbalance to this power, or supervision? If folks are travelling to teach, have big reputations, are generally at the top of the pyramid in a community, the answer is often no. If a student or community member was made to feel uncomfortable, and they saw how popular and charming the teacher was, would they feel a complaint would be listened to? Would they even have anybody to complain to?


On the other side of things, what about folks who make us feel a little bit bad, especially about ourselves, and we can’t quite put our finger on why? Does it make us eager to try to please them, to earn their approval? Do they say bad things about other artists’ workwithout context or constructive reasons (eg, ____ is bad, _____ isn’t anything special, etc)? How do they speak about their partners when they’re not in the room? What about students or colleagues? Are people close to them spending a lot of their time and energy trying to explain their behaviour, to manage it, or to make up for it? Often folks who create a vague negative energy can do so to position themselves as authority figures, to minimise opposition, to minimise others around them so they seem bigger. 


In improv, ideas for exercises, shows, scene starts, formats etc tend to flow quite freely (for better or worse). Some folks are very free about these things (as far as I’m concerned, go ahead and use anything I’ve ever done with credit- I’m not short of new ideas), and others are not (for example some original formats are copyrighted and this should be respected). It might seem like an odd point to bring up in relation to someone being problematic, especially as we all have very different opinions on good practice. But here’s a potential sticking point; do you know anyone who is fiercely protective of things they made, but never seems to credit folks who originated things they use or have drawn from? Trying to live on both sides of this spectrum in a way that minimises the contribution of others and values only your own feels like a big red flag to me, because it means that the person’s internal moral compass is in conflict with itself. There’s no one absolute correct set of values to have, but for me when folks pick and choose values to benefit themselves I’m immediately less trusting. 


One last thing to look for, especially when you’re considering working with a new/travelling improv teacher to whom you have few personal connections. Google them! It sounds very obvious, but there are folks working on the European circuit about whom some very damning newspaper articles exist. You can also very easily write to Safe Play and ask if a person you’re considering working with has been complained about. You won’t hear details for privacy reasons, but even ‘yes, we’ve had ten separate complaints’ should be enough information to at the very least keep an eye on that person and make sure they’ve understood your code of conduct. 


Or… hire somebody who hasn’t been complained about again and again- there’s no shortage of talent. I’ll be honest, it’s often frustrating to see folks who are widely known to have had serious complaints continue to get hired. People with a pattern of ongoing bad behaviour, who fully understand that they’re in the wrong, continue to be embraced by our community. I often hear ‘they’ve always been nice to me’, ‘I’ll be in the room so nothing will happen’, ‘that was years ago’, or ‘but they’re a really good teacher’. That might all be true, and sure in some cases folks deserve second chances (but maybe not fourteenth chances)… But is it worth the risk when there are so many other great teachers around? 


We as a community often suffer from a lack of firm leadership. We often don’t recognise the positions of power we hold as soon as we start teaching, leading a group, bringing in guest coaches and teachers. This thing about that is- it’s you. You’re the adult in the room. It’s all of us, whether we’re internationally renowned or just the person who books the room their ‘just for fun’ group rehearses in. It’s all of our responsibility to look out for each other, and to be firm when we need to be. It’s our responsibility to believe complaints until proven otherwise, to not assume our experiences are universal, and to cultivate the kind of community we want to be a part of. 


My next blog will delve a little deeper into how we deal with folks who are problematic, whatever that means to us- whether it’s just a firm explanation of the rules, some kind of rehabilitation, or being excluded from the community. It’s just as tricky a topic as this though, so I’m curious; how has your community done things? 


1 thought on “How to spot someone problematic”

  1. Love the Nathan Pyle comic. It says it all. Thanks for bringing up such an important topic, I am looking forward to the next.


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