Witness as Seeker

In Derek Paget’s essay which concludes Forsyth and Megson’s collection Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present, he argues that the act of witnessing constitutes the core political motivation for both creators and audiences to contemporary documentary theatre. He observes that the rise in documentary forms in various representational media — art, photography, theatre, film and television — has come about because the role of the witness to a live event has come to take on special trust claims. Trust is the key point here. There is so much in our postmodern, processed, and mediatized world that we do not trust. Distrust has become our default position.

Sources of information which in the recent past — notably the recording of events in photography and film — were held in high esteem as unimpeachably real are now commonly understood to be open to manipulation. Indeed manipulation is what we expect. Children are taught to be “media savvy.”  (My Grade 1 children just brought home end-of-year report cards with a new category “Media Literacy”) This immersion in the “fake” and the “processed” extends beyond information-acquisition, forming the background for the consumer desire for “authentic” goods and services.In this context, then, when even the document has become susceptible to “postmodern doubt and information management” (Paget 235) what remains is the the witness’s claim to authenticity through first-hand experience. The testimony of the witness is our gold standard for what can be reliably known.

Paget breaks the work of documentary theatre down into various categories of witnessing. He calls the preparatory phase of gathering, taping, transcribing, editing and rehearsing “the Recording of Witness.” The creating of the performance itself constitutes the “Bearing of Witness.” In the communion of the performers with the audience, there is the “Transmission of Witness” and the “Receiving of Witness.” (Of course, audiences are more than simply receivers of witness, they too become second-order witnesses to the performed testimony of the actors.)

In a return to ritual, the experience of documentary theatre is likened to the encounter of a congregation. Paget suggests that both audience and performers have gone out seeking. Seeking truth, perhaps. But also seeking in the shared experience of that testimony, what? — validation? ratification? consolation? (These are Paget’s question marks.) I think this idea of communion and the associated feelings of validation take the next step toward answering the question of why we desire the real. It goes beyond simply a desire to possess or experience it. In that communion, in that act of witnessing, the actors and the audience too are confirmed(?) in a mutually grounded situation in an unstable world. There is a shared moment of encounter between these mutual witnesses. Even if the absolute epistemological real is outside of our ken, at least the shared experience of seeking has been affirmed.


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