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To Witness

A Proposal to Build Radical Trust across Difference in the Arts

“When we witness one another, we are able not only to imagine but also to produce alternate futures and ways of being together.” — Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández

Building trust and relationships across difference is key to decolonizing theatre and building arts spaces that are of and by their communities. Many community development and audience engagement strategies aim to do this critical work. However, the way we come to these practices is often with a history and language steeped in seeing groups as “other,” devoid of closely shared connection. Two often-used buzzwords to identify privileged individuals working to decenter themselves are “ally” or “accomplice.” These labels, while well intentioned, run the risk of becoming passive identities—in other words, “I’m a good person.” This reinforces what London School of Economics professor Lilie Chouliaraki would call “a practice of voyeuristic altruism that reproduces the moral distance between us and them.”

So, how can we develop language that encourages the active dismantling of the distance between a perceived “us” and “them”?

In our own artistic work over the past five years—we’re both theatremakers—we have found an alternative language and practice that accurately describes a way of being together in reciprocity across difference. Over the course of several projects, we eventually realized we had built a radically trusting relationship, in spite of the Native and non-Native histories we have inherited (Ronee is Laguna Pueblo and Cherokee, while Annalisa is not Native). Working in the spirit of witness allowed us to rapidly close the distance between us as collaborators.

sheet music

"You Were There" from The Carlisle Project by Annalisa Dias and Ronee Penoi.

Defining “Witness”

In “Decolonization and the pedagogy of solidarity,” author and professor Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández reminds us that “being is always a ‘being-with’ and that there is no existence outside of a co-existence.” This sense of co-presence is an underpinning truth for how we think about witness. What does this mean for us as theatremakers and arts practitioners who have a commitment to decolonizing our ways of working, knowing, and making meaning?

Witness is centered on building connection, by seeing and being with one another’s struggles as they are experienced. In other words: “Your struggle is part of my story.” Allyship treats struggle as something outside the purview of the ally. In other words: “Your struggle is yours, and I am being a good person by helping you.” This increases distance between the ally and marginalized individual.

Building trust and relationships across difference is key to decolonizing theatre and building arts spaces that are of and by their communities.

A Journey to Laguna

Through generous support from the Network of Ensemble Theatres NET/TEN program, we traveled to New Mexico in December 2018. This trip offered a foundation for our work together writing The Carlisle Project, a musical song cycle wrestling with the legacy of the Indian boarding school. (Ronee is the composer, and Annalisa and Ronee are developing lyrics and book.) For Ronee, this was a journey of reconnecting with her Laguna Pueblo community, ancestral land, and identity. Her great-grandfather left Laguna as a child to attend the oppressive Carlisle Indian School, where the motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” He never returned home, and the legacy of trauma resonates in Ronee’s family today.

Over the course of three short days, we met with many Pueblo and non-Native individuals, institutions, lands of significance, and potential professional partners. Many of these meetings sparked the beginnings of new relationships, but they also surfaced wounds. Ronee is keenly aware of her lifelong lack of Indigenous community and culture due to hundreds of years of assimilationist policies made and enforced by the settler colonial United States government. The trip, then, was both triggering and healing.

two women smiling for a selfie.

Annalisa Dias and Ronee Penoi. Photo by Annalisa Dias.

Witnessing manifested itself in different ways during our time together.

  • Sharing space (physical, mental, emotional) before, during, and after moments of struggle. On our trip, Annalisa asked questions, listened, and reinforced Ronee’s values and purpose during difficult moments where Ronee felt like an outsider with her own people.
  • Providing a grounding force. Annalisa was a spiritual and emotional grounding force as Ronee took vulnerable steps forward (which may not have been perceived externally by individuals new to the situation).
  • Sharing story. The memories, the significance of the journey, and the responsibility of remembering did not have to fall on Ronee’s shoulders alone. Both of us were able to tell our stories from our own perspectives.
  • Inviting new paths for vulnerability and seeing. The generosity of witnessing inspired an invitation for reciprocity and a deepening of relationship between two individuals. We found this to be true about our relationship as collaborators and friends.
  • Witnessing creates active responsibility. In witnessing, we expanded our own individual experience and sense of what happened. Witnessing more naturally lends itself to future shared action across difference.

How does our experience apply to the particular challenges of relationship-building in the arts more broadly? Witnessing does not have to be one-to-one, but at its core must be about an actively shared experience.

Witnessing does not have to be one-to-one, but at its core must be about an actively shared experience.

What might witnessing look like in the arts field?

  • Administrators and producers. People in these roles might think of artists as collaborative partners rather than as workers-for-hire.
  • Education. People involved in educational work (in theatre or in schools) might rethink the implicit power dynamic in their work to allow for specific experiences of learners to be heard and processed. (See: Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Decolonizing Methodologies for more specific strategies.)
  • Leadership. People in leadership roles in the arts field might consider creating opportunities for shared experiences and story with staff, artists, and community. Being a leader is always “being with.”
  • Thinking about your individual roles as artists.
    • What would it mean for actors and directors to consider themselves as witness to the stories they are telling?
    • What alternate futures might we make together if playwrights and dramaturgs considered their work as part of sacred cultural practice, of “being-with”?
    • What would it mean for production teams and institutions to invite designers on earlier to “be with” and participate in deeper ways in development of new projects?
  • Reframing the reasons artists are in a room together. Instead of individuals only coming together when there is work to be done (making a show, teaching a class, etc.), bearing witness finds value in co-presence that is rooted outside of the work/productivity/self, allowing for a more generous way of being, with powerful outcomes. We’re so grateful that grant programs like the Network of Ensemble Theatres NET/TEN and Theatre Communications Group’s Global Connections exist to fund this kind of relationship building. More of that please!

Whatever the context, there are values underpinning the spirit of witness that anyone can fold into their practice.

  • Humility. Know when to say or think to yourself, “It’s not about me.”
  • Risk. Invest personally in the work, don’t work from a safe distance. This requires vulnerability and knowing your own boundaries.
  • Exchange. Offer yourself or your experience as something to be witnessed. Bring small gifts (journals or notebooks work well for adults, colored pencils and stickers work well for kids) with you when you travel; give them to those with whom you’ve had meaningful encounter.
  • Gratitude. Hold space to be grateful to have been invited to witness someone else’s story, journey, or work. It’s hard to undo the structures we’ve inherited.
  • Sacred. Strip away the performative. This work is deep and takes time. We’re actually getting at healing ancestral trauma.

Witnessing is not something you do for yourself to make yourself feel like a better person. It’s not something you do to be “woke.” Bearing witness requires reciprocal relationship, trust, and consent. Whether you are a community engagement manager looking to build relationships with new communities, a designer on a production with actors of a different ethnic or cultural background, a playwright doing research, or an administrator looking to build a more anti-racist institutional culture, situating yourself in the spirit of witness can change the quality of the invitation to those around you.

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Thank you for this thoughtful and clarifying article. Well done you! I have resisted the term ally for years, I just couldn't settle into the distancing nature and the "us vs them" reality of it. Your language, your understanding, is crucial and freeing. Thank you. We are truly all connected, and what you bring is different from me, you make me larger. We. Become new.