Voice to the voiceless: Puppets tell story of mining

Published: 2/17/2017 11:01 AM
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By Sarah DeSantis

THE NEWS-ITEM sarah_d@newsitem.com

LEWISBURG — Members of the Chilean-based puppetry ensemble Silencio Blanco realized after spending months researching Lota, Chile, that to accurately portray life in a coal mining community, they needed to remove all words and faces from the characters in their story.

“We want to review the silence,” said Dominga Gutiérrez, leader of the group, during a noontime talk at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts Thursday. “How can we give the voice (of someone) without a voice, the history of characters who are silent and who are important part of the history of humans?”

Silencio Blanco will perform its show, “Chiflón, El Silencio del Carbón” (Blast, the Silence of Coal), onstage at the Weis Center at 2 and 7 p.m. today.

The story is based on a real account the ensemble unearthed while in Lota, Gutiérrez said, but the performance seeks to find the common threads of life in coal towns around the world. She described how the group realized coal mining was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, yet few people recognize the sacrifices made by miners and their families.

“They paid with their lives for the modernization of the world,” said Bucknell University Spanish professor Fernando Blanco, who moderated the panel Thursday.

All of the puppets used in the performances were handmade by the group out of paper and glue. Group member Santiago Tobar said the materials were intentionally selected because of their symbolic connection to the people the puppets represent.

“There is a relationship between the wood, the paper, the glue and the status of the characters they work with,” he said, noting that the materials are commonly thought of as disposable, and the miners were thought of by the world as disposable.

More than 1,200 photos of the residents of Lota were used by the ensemble to build the faces of the puppets, which are faceless but contain expressions of anguish and pain.

“We thought, ‘We can’t make the puppets if we don’t know the real people,’” said Gutiérrez.

Gutiérrez said the group intentionally avoided using well-known stories or individual miners in their production because they believe celebrity detracts from the everyday plight of mining families. She said during the 2010 Chilean mining disaster, where 33 men were trapped in a deep mine for 69 days, the media made a blitz. After the cameras left, the life of a miner remained the same.

“Nothing has changed after this political show,” she said.

Instead, the group identified a story more universal, one centered on a miner’s wife. Tobar said the group found after talking to residents of Lota that women were “the heart” of life in a mining community because they are always holding the household together despite seemingly insurmountable grief and fear.

Other characters in the show include a miner, depicted with his ribs exposed to show the living conditions of the poor, and his fat mine boss.

After developing the story, Silencio Blanco returned to Lota to perform it for the residents. Gutiérrez said the residents’ reactions made her realize they had achieved their goal of giving a voice to the voiceless.

“It was the first time these people were the protagonists of their own story,” she said.

The performance is the latest in the “Coal Collection” series, a joint effort by the Weis Center and the Place Studies program of the Bucknell Center for Sustainability and the Environment. Tickets are general admission with on-stage seating only, and are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $5 for youth, students and Bucknell employees and retirees. Tickets can be purchased online at the Campus Box Office or by calling 570-577-1000.

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