Tutor: Carmen Walton


I’m a writer and creative writing tutor. For me the heart of any story has to be people. The things that matter to them, their motives, desires and deeds. Power and the way it shifts and matters to us is subtly woven into drama and stories and for this course I’ve been given the opportunity to look at overt examples of it’s use on the stage and in film.

Power and Performance has taken us to four venues, three in Manchester and one at Bury Met. The focus of our sessions has been the use of power between people as it’s portrayed in live performance, film and plays.  Discussion has played a large part in these sessions and no one has been short of words about power within the performances they’ve seen and power in their lives.
Carmen Walton is a creative writing tutor for WEA.

My Course Diary

Ten Questions

One of the interesting developments that came from all our discussions was the formulation of ten questions. They were designed to be searching so that when asked the answers to them could forge bonds of lasting friendship. Somewhere in the answering of these questions came the memory of Vesta Curry's (happy 70's childhoods) and Butterscoth Angel Delight (eat it and weep Jamie Oliver et al.) My ten questions are included and hopefully others will follow.

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My Ten Questions

  1. Who do you love most in the world?
  2. Have you ever experienced unrequited romantic love? If so how long did the situation go on for?
  3. Do you have, or have you ever owned an outfit that made you feel really good. What is it/was it like?
  4. If time could be stopped for a short period leaving you free to do as you liked without reproach, what would you do?
  5. If you could live one day of your life again, which one would it be?
  6. What part of yourself, physical or spiritual or otherwise, do you like best and perhaps rely upon?
  7. When you need strength or are praying who are you drawing strength from or praying to?
  8. What words do you wish you said and failed to?
  9. What would be your perfect morning / afternoon / evening / night.
  10. Where is your heart?

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What Are They Whispering? Bury Met

Three poets, Imtiaz Dharker, Joe Dunthorne and John Stammers, presented a script in hand collection of poems that questioned power. Drawing from personal experience they commented on otherness, existence, and the way we shape our views of life. For me the biggest question posed was where does poetry end and performance poetry begin. The poetry was honed and sharp but I'm not sure if it contained the animation that translates well into what was clearly a rehearsed performance.

As a one time performance poet I was constantly aware of the audience - a living, breathing, sighing, laughing, shouting, snoring entity, often on all sides. This relationship was the most perplexing and the most rewarding. Sensing mood and working with it was what made live performance exciting. I found What Are They Whispering About a little static and restrained. Each of the very engaging poets could have given more of themselves and had more in return in the way of response. There were people in front of them who might have had more too.

Given a fabulous darkened set complete with candles and atmosphere my co performance poet and I would have known we weren't in Kansas anymore and milked it for all it was worth. Played with it. Talked to people so that they might talk back, switched our planned set if we sensed we hadn't properly judged the mood and tone of the place in our assesment. I'm not advocating doggrel and comedy but using live space to communicate - a two way thing - and be flexible with material and delivery.

Our after show discussions were interesting. Some members of the group thought they might like to write poerty with a view to performing it. Others thought the element of power was with the performers who had to power to hold us, for any number of reasons, in our seats. We got onto the subject of reserve and decency and concluded that manners and politenenss, while necessary to prevent us from spiritually bruising one another, were powerful tools in the fight against truthful things we might say without them ...I love you...I hate you...I've never liked you in that jumper...I've known you for two years now and don't know how to tell you that I don't know your name...

There was no shortage of communication.

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We visited Cornerhouse in Manchester to watch Melancholia - a film written and directed by Lars von Trier. It starred, amongst others, Kiefer Sutherland and Kirsten Dunst, who was recognised for her performance. What a big film it was. Larger than life and long and ambitious. Not an easy watch. One of the questions we asked ourselves afterwards was - would you recommend it to a friend? We didn't think we would and yet watching it was a most memorable experience.

The end of the film - the Earth colliding with a rogue planet - is shown at the beginning. Triers wanted his audience to know this so that they were not distracted from the content of the film by suspense - will it won't it collide...

The film, which is in two sections, centres on two sisters, Justine who gets married in the opening scenes and soon becomes severely depressed. She's supported by her stronger sister Claire until the approach of the rogue planet changes the power in their relationship. Justine, previously weakened by depression becomes strong as Claire panics at the approaching and unavaiodable disaster.

Triers identifies atmosphere with the prelude to Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde. It's a profound and thought provoking film - in fact I have been provoked to think about it since.

Triers was inspired to create this film after his experience of being treated for depression. He was interested in the idea that depressed people remain calm in stressful situations as they already believe and perhaps know bad things can happen and are prepared for them.

One of our group members thought it waspossible that Justine became calm in the face of catastrophe because her fear of death was less to her than the fear of living. Another thought the central characters were no more than spoiled, unremarkable and wealthy people set against dramtaic circumstances.

Power was expressed through the possession of money, the power sick people sometimes have over everyone around them who is well, relationships and the expectations people have of each other.

Not everything we watch has such expressions of power but it's interesting to deconstruct ten or so minutes of viewing time to see who has power, why do they have it,what do they do with it. In life too - who has the power, what are they doing with it. What are you doing with your own power?

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Good. A play by CP Taylor staged at The Royal Exchange

Although born in Manchester I come from a family of left-wing, argumentative Glaswegians, something I might have in common with playwright CP Taylor, who was in addition to those things, Jewish. I have some knowledge of the streets, background noise, language and mood that influenced his sensibilities, the politics that shaped some of his views. Good is a play that presents the grittiness of his politics as something polished. In it, Taylor uses every resource available to make his point. There is music, at odds on many occasions with dialogue, the problems of the young, the old and in the middle of it all a gigantic question. What would I have done? We are invited into the world of professor Halder, an academic whose problems have previously been limited to his ailing mother and incompetent wife. In her rally against the indignity of aging his mother produces a book advocating euthanasia. This is to prove the means of introducing Halder to the National Socialist Party and his journey throughout the play. The presence of power in Good is something that escalates and is flamboyantly shown as Halder forgoes his academic's tweeds for the foreboding uniform of an SS Officer. He forgoes his first wife for a younger and more competent woman who supports his rise through the ranks and provides no resistance to the mindset that allowed people of the time to believe that what they were doing was for the greater good. Halder is not a brave man. He seems to take the route of least resistance on many occasions especially in his failure to help his Jewish friend to leave Germany when he fears for his life. We see in this too much power ill-used and in the wrong hands. We see how destructive careless indifference and self-interest can be. There was much to absorb in this play and it was worth seeing. I did comment however that I thought its main points had been made elsewhere and more succinctly and that the piece was difficult to watch. David Denehey of our group, the High Priest of the natty remark, asked me if I thought I had over reached myself intellectually and might have been better off at home watching Downton Abbey. I laughed, in a polite way, but did spend worrying moments wondering if home viewing had blunted my appetite for harsh and thought provoking material. Our group found Good stimulating and relevant. The treatment of power in Nazi Germany was felt to have modern parallels and its messages about the vast flaws in people, especially the powerful, resonated long after the performance.

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Summing Up

Our final meeting was held in a bar so that we could discuss power, performance and the possible forms of writing that might emerge with these elements as a central theme. David Denehey has posted his work and if you look you'll find that the haiku he has crafted from an existing piece of text also works visually. I did ask for people to keep diaries and post them on this site too. David's is there and a very strange time he's had lately. Our sessions were best suited to viewings and discussions of writing and the interesting routes discussions can take. We didn't get far in the production of pieces of creative writing. There wasn't time to do everything. Maybe that's something for another occasion.
My lasting impression is that challenging performances exist but we have to get dressed and make a little more effort to see them than we do to watch popular programmes at home on the television. (In our jim-jams...or is that just me?) If anything challenging does appear on TV it's often on in the snoozing hours or is low key and not overly advertised unlike the Xmas day edition of Eastenders which is being hyped up as I write. It seems that challenges to our way of understanding human relationships do not occupy the thinking and air time they warrant. What does that say about power? Who's got it? What are they doing with it?

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