What to do when people mess up


Following on from my blog post about how to spot someone problematic, this blog is about what to do when someone messes up. Of course, in lots of cases forgiveness is key, but that needs to be balanced with looking out for the safety of our communities. As someone who cares a lot about safety, it can be quite frustrating to watch a handful of serial offenders charm their way back into the scene over and over again. So, when do we forgive and forget, and when do we sever ties? 


First, I’d like to say that in incidents of harassment or assault, it’s statistically very unlikely that victims are lying. Particularly if multiple people have complained about the same offender, please start from a place of assuming they are being truthful and resist any urge to tell yourself (or them) that it wasn’t a big deal. 

Secondly, I’d like to talk about what makes a good apology. Psychology today defines a good apology as having 5 key ingredients:

  1. A clear “I’m sorry” statement.
  2. An expression of regret for what happened.
  3. An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
  4. An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person.
  5. A request for forgiveness.

It’s a lovely feeling to forgive someone who is actually sorry and willing to learn. It’s equally lovely to be forgiven when you’re genuinely sorry and willing to learn. None of us are perfect, and we should never expect that of ourselves or others. People and communities have immense capacity to grow, and when it works it’s just spectacular. Imagine all the good we could do for ourselves and each other by helping this process along. Improv is a tool that teaches flexibility, listening, empathy, and lots of useful tools for growth. It also teaches us that it’s ok to mess up. Please don’t take either of my blogs about this as an invitation to feel bad about mistakes you’ve made and now regret, or to exclude folks for social/cultural misunderstandings that can be cleared up with a frank talk. 


For me, deciding whether or not somebody deserves forgiveness often depends on their response to the discussion. If they’re angrily defensive of their actions, minimising what they’ve done, painting themselves as the real victim, don’t seem to see what the problem was, or generally don’t understand or care about the impact their actions have had (regardless of intent), I personally am not interested in forgiving them. Forgiveness in my case is conditional on a belief that whatever happened to cause harm will not be repeated. 


Improvisers (and actors) often want to be friends with everybody, both because we’re nice and personable people, and because careers are often made or broken on the quality of our personal connections and relationships. It’s often easier to minimise or forgive bad behaviour than it is to confront it and risk losing a friend or connection. But do you really want to be in a show/company with someone who makes others uncomfortable or even endangers them? Is the prestige of being in an uncomfortable but well-attended improv show really that great? I personally think it is not. 


Deciding not to forgive someone, or even to impose a rule or sabbatical, can feel very harsh if you’ve not done it before. Healthy relationships and communities rely on communication, empathy, and growth. If someone displays again and again that they’re not willing or capable of those, what does it say about the community that continues to accept them? We create our communities, and we re-create them every time we make a decision like this. 


This feels like a good place to mention that the idea of ‘professionalism’ seems to differ wildly from community to community. For me, professionalism means being reliable, being able to have a mature adult conversation, and mutual respect amongst colleagues and towards students (among other things). I’ve seen others from different improv communities than mine, and sometimes older generations in my own community, conflate the idea with professionalism with being able to ‘handle’ certain behaviour. I’ve seen and heard about many improvisers and actors who say that if somebody is professional, they should be able to deal with being kissed on stage, being touched, any and all subject matter, and even (in one case) being slapped in the face on stage. My personal belief is that this is a harmful and outdated belief system, but I’m definitely not in charge of how other people run their community. If this is you though… Please consider stating it explicitly so that newcomers are not caught off guard. (I will not be visiting your theatre)


I’ve included a flow chart with this blog post as an example of how I personally deal with unacceptable behaviour. You’ll notice that what behaviour is unacceptable isn’t listed anywhere on it (besides the obvious), because different communities and countries will have very different cultural norms. I do think, though, that every community should have rules that fit their own culture and values, (see my chapter in the SIN book on how to write your own code of conduct). And I think that every community should have some sort of process for dealing with people who break those rules, whether it’s my process or not. 


It’s in everyone’s interest to notice and deal with folks whose behaviour isn’t ok. For artistic reasons, because people play better when they feel safe, for moral reasons, because if you teach or run a school you are in a position of care, and for personal reasons, because once you’ve reached a certain age and/or level of expertise, you should be capable of being the adult in the room. The improv community belongs to all of us, and it is all of our responsibility to keep it safe, even if it involves some tough decisions. 

Finally, if there’s someone in your community who has harassed someone, assaulted them, or otherwise behaved inappropriately, please consider reporting it (anonymously if you prefer) to Safe Play. These reports can help organisers check if they are hiring safe people, as well as providing a clearer picture of what is happening in the wider improv community.


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