There are a lot of things in this world to apologize for. There are certainly a lot of things that people should apologize for. However, there are also a lot of things that no one should apologize for, and there are times when apologies can be downright annoying. It’s important that you understand how and when to apologize, and when not to.
I hear a lot of young actors- and adult actors- saying “I’m sorry” for things that they don’t need to apologize for. They are usually well-intentioned; but sometimes self-deprecating and sometimes even self-serving. I will explain. I always do.
First, I am going to explain the purpose and art of a true apology. Then I’m going to give you some times and techniques to use alternative phrases that are more appropriate for the instances in which most actors apologize.
A TRUE APOLOGY
A true apology is about the other person’s experience. Not yours. A real apology has to do with what the other person went through, or is about to go through, on account of you. It does not have anything to do with your reasons, your guilt, your intentions, your promises to improve/stop/fix whatever you did wrong. An apology is about how sorry you are that the other person is in a bad place because of something you did/said/neglected, etc. Any apology that starts with “I’m sorry, but” is not a true apology. One that starts with, “I’m so sorry, let me explain” is also not a true apology. In a true apology, the “I” in “I’m sorry” is the last time you should mention yourself until the other person asks you for more.
Things you cannot say immediately following a true apology:
2. Let me explain
3. I promise
4. I never
5. I swear
6. It wasn’t as bad as
7. This was the only time
8. It was (someone else)’s fault
9. I feel terrible
10. I’m an awful person
And anything else that involves you.
Things you can say immediately following a true apology:
- That you are hurting
- That you are going through this
- That you are disappointed
- That you are so sad
- That you are so angry
- This is a big deal
- This is/is going to be so hard on you
- That I have betrayed you (this one is OK as long as you keep the focus on them)
And anything else that involves them.
Then you follow their lead. If and when they want your reasons/intentions/explanations/ penance, they will ask you or tell you. If they don’t want any of that, don’t give it to them. It won’t help their experience, only yours, and that’s not what apologizing is about.
That being said, isn’t there a place for common courtesy apologies? Of course! Saying “I’m sorry” or “excuse me” when you bump into someone is fine, but you wouldn’t bump into someone and then launch into “I’m sorry, I was just walking and I guess I got distracted blah blah..” No. You apologize, and you make sure that person is OK before moving on. But in terms of actual things people apologize for, especially as actors, we do it too much and for the wrong reasons. If you have not caused someone else significant pain or inconvenience, then apology may not be the best, or even the most professional, avenue.
The thing about apologies is that they kind of require a response. They require a forgiveness or a rejection, some kind of “that’s ok” “forget it” “don’t worry about it.” But we really don’t have the time or the emotional energy to spend on that kind of exchange during rehearsal. Your typical apology exchange lasts an average of 5 seconds. Do that 12 times in a rehearsal, and you’ve wasted a full minute of rehearsal time apologizing. And time is money, as I’ve said before- going one minute over in your space could mean paying the whole crew overtime. Not cool. So here are some time- and energy-saving ways to approach those “I’m sorry” moments in rehearsal:
- “I’m sorry that we have to stop.” If you have, for whatever reason, interrupted rehearsal or have been the reason that something needs to be repeated or retaught, there is an impulse to apologize. This comes from the right place. Of course, you want to acknowledge the time and energy of others that you are now monopolizing. However, The quicker way to do it is “thanks for your patience, guys” and moving directly on. That validates and thanks them for what they are giving you already, and they don’t have to be gracious or forgiving. Especially if they don’t feel it. Being forced to forgive someone who really is taking up time when you are already cranky doesn’t make for good cast relations.
- “I’m sorry that I’m late.” Ugh. Again, DON”T BE LATE. If you are, DON’T SAY ANYTHING to the cast, the best way to make up for wasting other people’s time is not to waste another single second of it. Just get in there and do what you need to do. Check in with the stage manager at the first break to see what you missed and to give them your reason and your solemn oath never to do that again.
- “I’m sorry that I suck.” This is something I actually hear young and adult actors say. Sometimes exactly like this, sometimes in other more subtle ways. An apology to a dance partner that you can tell wanted someone different; to a duet partner above your ability level; any other place where you feel like you are bringing the quality of experience down due to your own current ability level. It’s a tough spot, I’ve been there, I get it. But this apology is still more about your experience than theirs. You are hoping they will say, “You’re not that bad” or “actually, you’re brilliant” or “you’re exactly what we were hoping for” or something along that line. You are certainly not hoping they will say, “I forgive you.” So resist the urge to fish for the encouragement that you need. Instead, you could ask for it. Say to your dance partner, “Show me where/how I can do this better,” or “who should I copy or learn from for this? Who really has this down?” Ask anyone that you think is better than you, “What/how/where can I improve?” They may tell you, they may not; but they certainly won’t if you just apologize, and the best an apology is going to get you is forgiveness. And no artist ever improved as an artist by gaining forgiveness only.
- “I’m sorry that I’m unprepared.” This you should be sorry for, but you need to make this into a true apology. That means that you cannot allow the apology itself to be the end of it. You need to acknowledge and take action on the experience of your fellow actors. If you don’t know your lines and it is off book day, rather than calling “line” and self-flagellating every two seconds, say “I’m going to respect your time, thank you for being prepared everyone, I apologize; I will carry book for this scene/day and be ready tomorrow.” And then DO WHATEVER YOU NEED TO DO to make that come true. If you are clumsy in a dance, step out of it for the safety of others and get with the dance captain or whoever can help you and make it happen. If you don’t know a song, mark it as well as you can, act through on la-la’s without lyrics, and get the job done as soon as you are physically able without using up the cast’s time. Remember that it is about their experience, not yours. I’m sure as people they care about your homework load, your parents, your injuries/illness, your transportation issues, whatever is keeping you from doing the job, but as professionals, no one can afford to care. Gotta get it done.
- “I’m sorry” as a response to a note or direction. The safest and most professional response to a note or direction is “thank you.” And if you really did something wrong and hadn’t realized it, you could perhaps add a “whoops” or an “oops” to mark the fact that you hadn’t intended the way you’d done things, followed by the “thank you.” But again, don’t waste time with the “I’m sorry- I forgot/thought you wanted/there was a thing in the way/whatever”. Another post on taking notes later, but no time for apology/forgiveness during notes for sure.
- “I’m sorry, could you stop that?” Apologizing for things that other people need to be apologizing for is both a poor use of an apology, and also passive-aggressive, which is something that actors are especially good at. If you want something to stop, ask politely for it to stop. “Would you guys mind spraying that outside? It triggers my asthma.” “Can you guys maybe talk over there? I can’t hear my cue.” “If you all could keep it to a dull roar in this area, I’d appreciate it.” Or deal with it, if you’re not comfortable asking. But don’t apologize.
- “I’m sorry, could you do something for me?” Same kind of thing. If you want/need something, ask for it, and then thank whoever does it for you. No place for an apology there.
- “I’m sorry, I don’t want to go out with you.” Or any other rebuff of any kind of an advance made by any member of any company in any capacity. You do not EVER have to apologize for turning someone down. You can tell them that you are not interested, that you like them as a friend, that you don’t want to kiss them, that you don’t want them to touch you that way, or that your lawyer will contact them. But you do not, should not, must not apologize to them. Even if you feel that you have “led them on,” you can say “maybe this got out of hand,” or “I think you and I have different ideas about where things are going here,” but “I’m sorry” is NOT something that needs to be said. Not by you. Possibly after you have judo chopped them or kneed them to get their hands off you… no, actually, not then either.
When then, as an actor, do you need to make a true apology?
Like I said, if you have directly cause someone significant pain, distress, or inconvenience. Being unprepared can definitely fall under that. Here are a few more, and by the way, all of these are generally avoidable:
- Quitting. (See I Quit)
- Injuring someone.
- Missing an entrance or other cue.
- Lying (Don’t do this. We are actors, we lie for a living, we’re really good at spotting it. More on that later).
- Trying to insert a major conflict after rehearsals have already begun.
- Betrayal. This includes believing and/or spreading rumors that are false.
- Damaging/losing a prop, set piece or costume to the point that someone else needs to take time and/or money to fix/replace it for you.
You get the idea. When apologizing for any of the above (or the others that I’m sure will come to mind), follow the rules for a True Apology, and you can add, “please let me know what I can do to make up for this.” But don’t necessarily expect an answer right away. And if you do get one, it may not be spoken in a super forgiving way. But that’s part of their experience. Not yours.