A Place of Seeing

Caitlin Nasema Cassidy


Caitlin Nasema Cassidy was born in a suburb of Boston and raised between there and the Arab world. She is the daughter of seven-sea-sailing hippies Tom Cassidy Jr., the eldest of a large Irish Catholic family, and Joan Kelley, the youngest of a Lebanese and Syrian family. Caitlin fell in love with the performing arts early in life, and grew up studying acting, piano, voice, and dance after school. She received her BA from Georgetown in government and Arabic, and was a recipient of the Theatre and Performance Studies Department award for Excellence Across the Performing Arts. Upon graduating from GU, she journeyed to London, where she earned a master’s degree in acting from East 15 and completed a residency at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Caitlin has designed and implemented theatre-based curricula in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Puerto Rico, served as Language and Culture Fellow with AMIDEAST, and devised performance for UNESCO’s World Theatre Conference as well as India’s International Theatre Festival. Caitlin has performed at Williamstown, Chautauqua, Berkshire Playwright’s Lab, Disney World, Lincoln Center, The Lark, and Playwrights Horizons, as well as with Epic Theatre Ensemble, Pig Iron, The Civilians, Synetic, and Noor. She is Co-Artistic Director of LubDub.Theatre Company.


doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.24


Bearing witness, particularly in the context of suffering, is an action with great consequence in the world. I firmly believe that attention forms the foundation for robust and equitable social systems. To bear witness is a revolutionary act, and to be witnessed our most fundamental human desire.

The idea of witness seems inextricably linked to the question of intervention, which is to say the question of responsibility. Does the act of witnessing require moral conscience? Silence? Objectivity?

I would like to argue that bearing witness is the most profound form of intervention there is.

The act of bearing witness is distinct from that of witnessing, which itself is distinct from that of observing. Observation does not entail the responsibility of consciousness. In order to move from observation to witnessing, an attempt at connection and understanding must be made. And to travel from witnessing to bearing witness demands full, embodied presence and compassion.

In today’s world—a world in which relationships are increasingly mediated by ever-shrinking screens, in which we too often fail to acknowledge the existence of other people in the flesh, and in which we are encouraged (not only by technology, but also by our leadership) to serve ourselves first—our ability to bear witness and our understanding of its significance, is under growing threat.

The theatre and its artist are antidote. The greatest responsibility of the artist is to bear witness and to illuminate the unseen. The theatre is one of the last remaining places in which we gather, turn off our cell phones, and make a tacit agreement to be present. The word theater is derived from the Greek théatron, meaning “a place for seeing.” In the theatre, we practice the art of bearing witnessing. Because of this, the theatre is as vital now as it has ever been, if not even more so.

The rise of immersive forms of theatre—the work of Punchdrunk and performances like “Marina Ambramovic: The Artist is Present” come to mind—testify to the depth of our longing to be witnessed and the transformative power of the act of witnessing.

 

Cassidy
“Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” at MoMa in New York City. Unaltered image by Andrew Russeth. Licensed through Creative Commons.

 

As an artist, I believe I have an ever more urgent responsibility not only to witness and cultivate presence myself, but to empower and create opportunity for others to bear witness. Witnessing in the theatre can no longer be unidirectional. We must move toward a model of theater in which the role of witness is extended to everyone in the room. Performers are given the opportunity to bear witness to spectators and, perhaps most importantly, spectators are given the opportunity to bear witness to other spectators. This would serve to move us toward—or perhaps, return us to—a kind of theatre that feels like sitting at the dinner table.

It is only at this crossroads, in the honest meeting of one another through the act of bearing witness, that we gain access to one another’s souls and to our shared humanity. If there is hope for a real and lasting peace—and I believe there is—it lives in paying compassionate attention.

 

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