- Dissonant Witnessing:The “in” and “above” of Thou Proud Dream
How does a director create witnesses in the theatre? What aesthetic and storytelling tools best cultivate an experience where spectators feel emotionally and ethically transformed into the role of a witness? These were the questions that dominated my research during my MFA studies in directing at Northwestern University, and my goal was to formulate a general approach to witnessing that other directors might be able to utilize. The challenge was that while theories about what it means to be a witness in the theatre are becoming more prevalent, they are also more diverse and oppositional. One need only read Caroline Wake’s “The Accident and the Account” in order to get a sense of the breadth of this theoretical terrain. Wake surveys witnessing theories that she divides into several overlapping categories, insinuating how difficult it is to know if and how practitioners can actively create a specific condition of witnessing in the theatre. No matter which definition of witnessing that other directors chose, could I posit some core questions that could aid them in articulating a practicable approach to witnessing?
The questions I found useful in my own work are rooted in creating and maintaining dissonance for my viewers. Theories on witnessing largely hinge on how a spectator is positioned between two modes of perception, which Dwight Conquergood describes as being “above the object of inquiry” and “in the thick of things” (146). He uses these phrases to describe forms of knowledge. The former allows one to learn through “empirical observation and critical analysis from a distanced perspective”; this is the privileged form of knowledge in Western cultures, as it is “rooted in paradigm” and suggests that one can archive, categorize, and clearly utilize all information (146). The latter mode refers to “knowing that is grounded in active, intimate, hands-on participation and personal connection”; it positions the knower on the “ground level,” where nuanced and unspeakable truths can be articulated (ibid.).
Conquergood advocates collapsing the binaries between these modes, and asserts that the field of performance studies “is uniquely suited for the challenge of braiding together disparate and stratified ways of knowing” (152). I believe that theatre can likewise be a space where forms of knowing can commingle, deepening our personal understandings and promoting “activism, outreach, [and] connection to community” (ibid.).1 And in particular, Conquergood’s modes readily lend themselves to witnessing theory. Being “in the thick of things” allows spectators to (vicariously or vividly) encounter traumatic events, which are at the heart of most theories of witnessing. Maintaining a “distanced perspective” provides an opportunity for spectators to think critically about how trauma relates to existing sociopolitical paradigms. Somewhere in the tension between these positions exists a place where witnessing can occur.
Many scholars seem to agree with this notion. In “The Accident and the Account,” Wake classifies most theories of witnessing as being about primary witnessing or secondary witnessing. Theories of primary witnessing place spectators “in the thick of things” by positioning them as either the victim, perpetrator, or bystander present at a traumatic event (5), giving them intimate knowledge of unspeakable truths. But scholars of primary witnessing likewise see the value of “critical analysis from a distanced perspective.” Tim Etchells in particular studies productions that “demand repeatedly [End Page 321] of those watching ‘be here, be here, be here’” (18). But he prefers this self-presence to result in primary witnesses “feel[ing] the weight of things and one’s own place in them” (17), an act that demands critical distance. Conversely, theories of secondary witnessing, proposed by Diana Taylor and Emma Govan, keep spectators “above the object of inquiry” by distancing them spatially or temporally from the traumatic event and prioritizing self-reflection (Wake 7–8).2 But Taylor also defines witnessing as an “involved” and “caring” form of spectatorship (1997, 25), and Govan states that witnesses must be “actively engaged with the material” (58). This suggests that to achieve the status of witness, it is not enough to observe; emotional proximity must be a part of the alchemical equation: “an epistemological point of departure and return” (Conquergood 149).
Much of my...