There is a place called Centralia, whose citizens are called Centralians. It is not the product of a science-fiction writer's imagination. It is an actual American town, but in 2002 this borough in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, had lost so many residents that the U.S. Postal Service revoked its zip code.
The reason for the town's desolation is all too familiar. Centralia was primarily a mining town, and back in 1962 a coal fire erupted underground. Its effects percolated up to Centralia's 1,000-plus residents nearly two decades later, when a 12-year-old boy fell into a sinkhole, literally reopening the issue. A few years later, Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts, and Centralia's population began dwindling. By 2013, eight residents called the town home. They were surrounded by ghosts and coal ash.
Who are these hangers-on, and why do they insist on remaining in an environmental blight? Moreover, what kind of theater are they into? Is Sondheim, Shakespeare, or Brecht more their thing?
These are just a few of the questions posed by Centralia, an offbeat and uncategorizable docu-play written by the British troupe Superbolt Theatre that opens at the Miami Theater Center this Thursday. Superbolt's four actor/writer/directors collaborated on this play, which invents three characters -- composites of the town's remaining denizens -- who never left their homes in Centralia.
"This seemed like an important situation to talk about, something that for whatever reason has slipped under the public's radar," says Maria Askew, one of Superbolt's founders. "With Centralia, the themes of home and identity are inextricably bound, and we had to get our teeth into it."
Superbolt's creators explored the concept in a unique way. Even though they have no theater experience, the characters decide to put on a variety show to describe their stories of resistance around the globe. The show-within-a-show combines comedy with tragedy, cabaret, dance, and politically conscious music.
"What was most appealing was finding the delicate balance between characters who'd never done theater before but still manage to be endearing and impressive in their skills and choices," says Simon Maeder, another Superbolt founder. "We'd recently graduated from the Jacques Lecoq School of Movement and Theatre in Paris, where we did a lot of work on clowning. We basically approached these characters as if they were clowns -- innocent, eager, and always engaged with what's happening around them."
When Paul Tei, the artistic director of Mad Cat Theatre Company, saw Centralia at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, he knew it would be a perfect fit for Mad Cat's experimental aesthetic.
"The way in which the piece expresses itself through storytelling and music is exciting to me, because it's theatrical without having to feel like it's television," says Tei, who is directing Centralia's Miami premiere. "I'm bored with most American theater right now. It's really stuck in some kind of bad wannabe television show, I think. I realize there's an audience for that; it's just not ours. We need to stimulate our audiences more now than ever, because they're very easily distracted and can tune out very quickly."
The stimulation takes many forms in Centralia, and it's up to the cast of Troy Davidson, Theo Reyna, and Bonnie Sherman to keep the energy up. Superbolt productions inevitably push their actors in new directions; though Centralia is not a musical, all three sing and dance, and Davidson and Sherman play the ukulele and banjo, respectively.
For Reyna, who plays the eldest Centralia resident, one of the challenges of this show is that's he's a professional actor playing an amateur actor; his performance needs to be really good at not being too good, and it must be humorous without being condescending.
"We've talked about what Christopher Guest did in Waiting for Guffman, where there are parts that are funny but you're not judging the characters. You don't want to come across as assholes who are belittling these people," Reyna says. "So you find fondness for them and give them integrity, but you also have to bear in mind that they don't have the training that we do. It's a different way of preparing than you normally would for a show."
Thus, Centralia is an example of theater about theater -- the power of stagecraft to communicate, to agitate, to escape. But the play is also about the hazardous burning of fossil fuels, an issue that burbles beneath the show's comic surface without overtaking it.
"We wanted to make a show, not a newspaper article, and we have found that often the best way to move people, to really make them think, is to make them laugh and entertain them -- through comedy, cabaret, dancing, and silliness," Askew says. "We have discovered that the tragedy of enthusiasm and joy in the face of such a bleak reality is a powerful setup for a show.
For Tei, the prooduction's political aspect hits especially close to home. "My parents grew up three hours outside of Centralia, in West Virginia, in coal mines and gas mine towns not unlike Centralia," he says. "I was recently back for a family reunion. I was driving through Pennsylvania and the Ohio River area, and all these towns that once were prospering in the '50s and '60s and '70s are now like ghost towns because they shut down the paper mills, or the gas companies have shut down, and fracking has moved into the communities.
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"There's definitely a message here, and like most of the political plays we do, it's buried underneath the laughs. Hopefully it's something people will think about on the way home and not feel like they're getting hit over the head with it."
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