Centralia is spontaneous theatre named after a coal-mining town that has been on fire for the past 39 years. Garbed in the traditional outfit of the miner – coveralls and headlamps – and nothing more than some elaborate scaffolding and industrial “props” to play with, miner descendants Matt Higgins, Jay Rhoderick and Kevin Scott and miner/musician Josh Citron create a wholly original theatre piece that happens at a moment’s inspiration complete with spontaneous lighting design and musical score. The results have been wowing audiences for years.
Centralia is a little town in northeastern Pennsylvania. It is in the heart of the state’s coal regions and was once a thriving town. Most towns in this region started to slow and stop growing when the coal industry began to fade in importance. However, Centralia has not faded away because of lack of demand for coal. It hasn’t really faded away at all. Technically, it’s slowly burning away. In May 1962. A fire was started in the mine beneath Centralia and no one was able to put it out. Lore has it that no one knows exactly how it started, but four decades later the fire still burns!
Centralia once had a population of 1,100. In the decades since the fire began to spread it has dwindled to 20. Born in Centralia long after the fire started, these flame-scorched individuals set out to conquer their restlessness. The four were always agitators and instigators. Their families, fortunes and homes had been wrecked by the intense heat from underground. In response, they organized sit-ins and hunger strikes in the town square to protest the rising price of asbestos. Desperate to bring joy back to the town and its seven remaining families, they donned their working men’s garb and climbed onto the back of an abandoned Centralia coal cart. There they sang impromptu songs of protest and buffoonery and performed unscripted routines that lampooned fools in high places. They were arrested and charged with trespassing, slander and disturbing the peace.
The four were convicted and sentenced to six years of hard labor battling the underground fire using only sandbags, foam, beer and shovels. The work was hard. Sitron and Scott had all their body hair burnt off in a botched, but daring coffee break. Higgins sat near smoking fissures and wrote letters of encouragement to his family. Rhoderick disappeared for hours into the burning tunnels, muttering to himself. But since all the prison guards had fled the town years before, this unsupervised chain gang soon walked to freedom, renamed themselves after their infernal town, and vowed to extinguish the fire of boredom and indifference that burns under every town.