Silencio Blanco is a touring company of seven puppeteers from Santiago, Chile. Their latest work, Chiflón, El Silencio del Carbón, (The Silence of the Coal), is a haunting, tightly choreographed performance that invites audiences into the lives of generations of coal miners—parents, spouses, and children—and the worlds that literally cave in on them.
Baldomero Lillo researched the book Chiflón del Diablo (The Devil’s Blast) by talking with miners in the small town of Lota, Chile. Silencio Blanco’s cofounders, Santiago Tobar and Dominga Gutiérrez, were inspired by Lillo to stay in Lota and learn about mining from the people there. Their newspaper, wire, and tape puppets are based on real people, Lota miners and their relatives.
As a former mining town, Lota’s fortunes have risen and plummeted with the fortunes and crashes of carbon-based energy and global markets. Violent political regimes and earthquakes both had their way with the coalmines during the 1970s and 1980s, and “free trade” competition from cheaper sources outside of Chile in the 1990s finished them off. The town has not had an active mine since 1997, and former miners now guide tourists through the caverns underground.
All around the world, generations of families in small towns commit their bodies and lives to the production and delivery of fossil fuels. While we all pay for this in some way, some people pay in blood.
I’m someone who lives between a major city and quiet suburbs. I’ve never seen a mine and never touched an oil rig: by the time these fuels are repackaged and marketed to me as “clean,” I don’t see what they really cost. Artists like Silencio Blanco translate fuel workers’ experiences into art and help to breach that silence.
These puppets move around the stage with only lights, sound effects, wood props, and gestures to convey moods and meaning. Three puppeteers handle each puppet at a time, and as I watched them coordinate a coal shower, an argument, meal preparation, and a tender hug between characters, I couldn’t help but think of the coordination of social forces, company profits, and popular demand that allow people slices of intimacy and connection yet also runs generations and generations of them into the ground.
The show runs 50 minutes. If it tours near you, go and see it.