From Spectating to Witnessing: Performance in the Here and Now

Derek Goldman

Derek Goldman is Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Georgetown University and co-Founding Director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, which he co-founded with Ambassador Cynthia Schneider in 2012 with a mission “to harness the power of performance to humanize global politics” ( He is an award-winning stage director, playwright, adapter, producer, developer of new work, teacher, and published scholar, whose artistic work has been seen around the country, Off-Broadway and at numerous major regional theaters, as well as internationally.  In 2016 he was honored to receive the prestigious President’s Award for Distinguished Scholar-Teachers. He is a Founding Director of UNESCO/ ITI’s Global Network of Higher Education in the Performing Arts,  member of the Board of Theatre Communications Group, with whom he is a  co-creator of the Global Theatre Initiative, promoting cross-cultural collaboration and cultivating strategies to maximize the global theatre field. He holds a Ph. D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.22

We are all witnesses to the times that we are living through and to countless performative manifestations of these times on a daily basis. But our role as witnesses is inevitably bound up with so many of the other roles that we try to hold in balance, and is compromised by what we inevitably fail to see, to notice, and to absorb of what is transpiring around us, and from all that we, being human, fail to process and to transform. The daily performance of our lives consists of habitually bearing witness to a great deal that, if we allow it to, might profoundly stir and trouble us. But we witness every day so much that we feel powerless to act on, and that we feel we lack the capacity to do anything about. The desperation and suffering of another human being we pass on the street is a living image of our habitual daily performance of simultaneously bearing witness, and of avoiding or forgetting what we see.

Most of us are inundated these days by an onslaught of competing discourses, images, narrative fragments, and bits of mediated information, and it is not uncommon to experience laments of sensory overload, numbness, and despair as conscientious citizens try to balance a sense of being engaged and alert to the din of crises that swirl around us, and of finding ways of gaining perspective or critical distance, sometimes posited as “methods of survival.”

Theatrical performance at a phenomenological level is one of the aspects of human experience that has undergone the least fundamental change over millennia. It is true that some performances may now take place in modern buildings under LED lights or even in dialogue with cutting-edge multimedia technology, but relative to the radical changes in how we communicate, travel, consume, work, and live, the basic act of gathering for the occasion of performance in a communal place to witness a story shared by other living human beings has remained relatively constant.

These exceptionally challenging times, so riddled with conflict, polarization, and disparities of all kinds, characterized by an unprecedented number of forced migrants around the world (more than 65 million according to the UNHCR’s Global Trends 2015), may provide a signal moment to think about what we look for when we look to performance. Do we seek a space to give meaning to our struggles? To gather communally? To be less alone? To take refuge? To practice empathy? To connect to the unknowable and to the mythic? To experience the release that laughter provides? To better understand the past? To better understand ourselves? To better understand what we are up against? To have our numbness pierced? To grieve what we have lost? To equip ourselves with tools to navigate or even transform our worlds? To imagine or to rehearse the future?

If we accept that the act of witnessing is embedded in and fundamental to performance practice, we can examine the wide spectrum of ways that performances activate the function of witnessing. It can be said that the entire apparatus of much bourgeois Western theater is designed, if not to deaden that function, then at least to normalize it as a habit or a custom.1 Often in this tradition, we enter a theatrical space, take our assigned seats in an area demarcated for the audience (often in “cushy” seats designed for our comfort). Typically in the modern Western theater, the lights go down on us, as they go up on the performative event which we quietly “spectate” until, at the end of the performance, we applaud the performers, and the lights come back on us, as if restored to ourselves.

The convention of the “fourth wall” has been so widely deployed and accepted, and so fundamental to the apparatus of Western forms of naturalism and realism, that it can be seen as an all-encompassing gesture that allows audiences the voyeuristic gratification of peering into a world without any particular participatory accountability. In this model, we sense that the performance would transpire in much the same way whether we were there to witness it or not. We may, in fact, listen intently, or even be emotionally stirred, but we also may hide, daydream, fidget, doze, and generally forego any accountability. At its essence, this form of performance is still designed to be witnessed, but we as audience play an anonymous and relatively expendable and interchangeable role.

In the summer of 2013, South African theater-maker Yael Farber’s powerful and harrowing documentary theater work Nirbhaya premiered to much fanfare at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Based on the December 16, 2012 gang-rape incident in urban Delhi that had shocked the world just months before, Farber’s play both revisited the particular incidents of that evening and explored the wider epidemic of gender-based violence through the personal testimonies of the performers.

Nirbhaya operates within a large and tremendously varied category of “documentary theatre” works described my Carol Martin as “Theatre of the Real” (2013), including, for example, an expanding body of work around the world that engages the stories and experiences of refugees. In an increasing number of these works, the power of the performance is inextricably bound up with the audience’s understanding that these performers recount stories and moments that have actually happened to them; in Nirbhaya, for example, scars and disfiguring injuries visibly marked on some of the performers’ bodies provide a heartrending resonance beyond the text of the narrative they are recounting. When Lyn Gardner, reviewing Nirbhaya for The Guardian, writes that “we are not just watching, we are bearing witness,” (2013) her observation seems characteristic of the response from press and audience alike, as if some kind of degree of critical distance that it is presumed will be in operation in most theatrical performances has here been collapsed.

The significance of a work like Nirbhaya was not only in how it exposed long-silenced societal taboos, or in the exceptional craft with which it was executed, but in the fact that the performers drew their power, authenticity, and expertise less from their artistic training and more from the lived truth of their own experience—what has actually happened to them and what they have witnessed. This is not to say that the performance was not virtuosic. In fact, one might argue that the exceptionally painful and visceral nature of the testimonials in Nirbhaya demanded a degree of artistic and expressive sensitivity, made manifest in this case through potent atmospherics and powerfully staged communal ritual, that allowed the experience to be not only bearable, but generative and restorative.

The shift from spectating to witnessing that Gardner invokes in her response to Nirbhaya seems to me a profound distinction that cuts right to the core of the question of what we mean by, and what we want from, socially engaged performance. Often, the spectator who merely watches voyeuristically from the dark is liberated from accountability for what they are seeing. In a sense, they are analogous to the person who passes the suffering beggar on the street. They might feel something, but the action they are performing is one of moving past or through the experience and on to something else. It is a form of escapism—perhaps a necessary one, a method of survival, quite normal, habitual, and not shameful, but still in its essence characterized by a kind of absence, or at least by an incomplete presence.

By contrast, most effective socially engaged performances foreground the audience’s conscious act of witnessing, a transference of accountability to acknowledge that something substantive has occurred in which all those present are now implicated, and that can never be unseen. This notion of witnessing runs directly counter to the idea of the artistic event as merely a form of escapism—implying that as witnesses the performance has exposed us to something that shifts us in some way and that will make us continue to engage and grapple with its contents, perhaps both privately and in our dialogues and interactions with others.

The act of witnessing is inextricably tied to what performance is, how artists make it, how audiences experience it, and how it develops meanings in the social world. When we conceive and create toward a public performance, the leap of faith we take is that there will be witnesses who give meaning and substance to that effort. But the forms and modes of witnessing that are essential to performance are hugely variable, and often layered and co-dependent. When we conceive of the act of witnessing our primary relationship is typically ocular—it involves seeing. Etymologically, we know that the word “theater” comes from the Greek, meaning literally “the seeing place.” Colloquially, when we speak of having witnessed something, we generally mean to say that we have seen it.

More recently, productive critical interventions have discussed other mediated forms of witnessing such as photographs, diaries, and recordings. The work of Israel’s remarkable Nalaga’at Theater, with its mission to integrate “deaf-blind people into society,” reminds us that experiencing performative co-presence may not be confined to the acts of seeing and hearing. Still, what we normally mean by performance is fundamentally characterized by its liveness and the physical co-presence of living human beings in a shared space.

The relationship of performance to witnessing is not only a dynamic in the performer–audience relationship. A wide variety of structures and forms of bearing witness have for thousands of years been woven into the fabric of performances themselves. The form and function of the Greek Chorus as an extension of the community that would comment on and reflect the events of the play is a classic example of how the act of witnessing has been staged, and that continues to be used in many variations in contemporary plays. This form of performance, in which, for example, a chorus uses direct address to implicitly or explicitly acknowledge the presence of the audience and to comment on the action, creates a dialectic within the performed event between the events being witnessed and those doing the witnessing. The Chorus is thus conceived as an extension of the audience, a way for the community to look at itself.

In addition, variations on the “courtroom drama” have been pervasive across many eras, cultures, and theatrical forms ranging from the Greeks to Shakespeare to innumerable classic plays in the American and British naturalistic traditions. Much of the enduring power of this form is in how it positions and involves the audience as a kind of proxy jury, capable of witnessing events and of weighing arguments that are often presented directly to them.

There are other theatrical forms and theoretical movements that have gained currency such as the epic theater, a term first coined by Erwin Piscator (1929), and made most famous by Bertolt Brecht. Epic theater serves as a vast umbrella for an array of theatre practices rooted in audience interaction, documentary techniques, and tactics meant to cultivate an audience response in the here and now. Epic theater forms are arguably as familiar now in many of their conventions as realism. At its root, this theatrical approach highlights the audience capacity to participate in, challenge, interrupt, or even contest the performance. Influential Brazilian theatre practitioner and politician Augusto Boal, who founded the form known as Theatre of the Oppressed, extended the notion of Epic Theatre further with his notion of the “spect-actor,” highlighting the capacity of the audience member to transform the reality of the performance, and by extension, to rehearse a transformation of the reality in which they live (1993). While Boal’s greatest influence has been felt outside traditional theatre spaces, in community settings, villages, and in the streets, more and more contemporary performance practitioners are building on this function of the “spect-actor,” by explicitly engaging audiences within the performances as interlocutors, sometimes voting on, interrupting, or otherwise participating in and influencing the staged action.

As we navigate an ever more polarized world, it is vital for us to acknowledge that the potency of witnessing within the framework of performance not only transpires between performer and audience, but is negotiated among the varied publics that may constitute this audience, and that much of the meaning that performance generates may be shaped and negotiated not only between performer and audience, but in and among diverse audiences. However, conscious we may or may not be of it in a given moment, our experience is significantly impacted by the reality of the audience members around us. Comedy, for example, is an especially heightened social space since we respond to the laughter of others. Whether we find that laughter infectious, alienating, or merely curious, it profoundly impacts our experience and our process of making meaning. Even if we are in an audience where the performance is not reaching us, if others are deeply moved or responding with loud laughter, we notice that and begin to ask ourselves what is transpiring for them, and sometimes even to think differently about our own reactions.

In practice, most audiences for performances around the world, whether in major opera houses and theaters, or community centers and school auditoriums, or on the streets and in villages, are still relatively homogeneous. For so many powerful and enduring reasons, people tend to gather with people who are relatively like them. Of course, performance can often gain its power from this implicit sense of shared experience and understanding, the sense of community and “safe space” that comes from this relative homogeneity. But just as we should be suspicious of a jury that is made up of people who are apparently very similar, it is increasingly urgent for performance, when and where it can, to find a way to take place among witnesses who are different than each other—in terms of cultural and ideological background, age, class, race, faith, gender identity, and sexual preference. Otherwise, performance risks becoming a symptom of our polarized and siloed world, with our venues being physical manifestations of the “bubbles” we inhabit. How can we imagine performance as a vehicle to profoundly witness not only a powerful event or narrative, but to truly witness each other across our differences?

In his iconic essay “The Street Scene,” Brecht uses the traffic accident as a foundational model for epic theater, in which the performer demonstrates in detail what he or she has just witnessed (1964). It is this shift, from a bystander to an engaged witness who is compelled in some way to take the stage and to grapple with what has transpired, where the dimensions of witnessing as an ethically and politically-engaged embodied act of making meaning come to life. Here, responsibility ceases to rest solely with the performer; rather, it becomes part of the complex, diffuse, and powerful social function of engaged performance. Much of the urgent promise that performance holds in these challenging times is as a catalyst for genuine and new acts of witnessing, and of being witnessed, in the mutual presence of those whom we may have passed by, whether by choice, habit, or because we have not yet been afforded the opportunity to connect.


Boal, Augusto. (1993) Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Brecht, Bertolt. (1964) Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. by John Willett. London: Methuen.

Gardner, Lyn. (2013). Nirbhaya Edinburgh Festival Review. The Guardian, August 5.

Martin, Carol. (2013). Theatre of the Real. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Oxford English Dictionary Online

Piscator, Erwin. (1929). The Political Theatre: A History 1914–1929. New York: Avon.


  1. Normalization is a term that has gathered increased currency in politically charged contexts where one party cites a predilection to treat a societal circumstance that it feels is egregious or aberrant enough to need scrutiny and attention, but is instead being made to be accepted as a normal or a “status quo” state of affairs. Here I am using it to suggest a certain kind of habitual numbness that comes from the acceptance of conventions that we typically don’t think to challenge.
Image: Paul-Albert Besnard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons