Reliving coal’s history to educate, entertain a community
This article by Lisa Shrewsberry ran January 18, 2012 in the The Register-Herald of Beckley, WV. It is reprinted here with permission.
Call her a living historian. The artistic meshing of rich heritage and exquisite hardship defining Appalachian culture is what coal miner’s daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter Karen Vuranch has made her life’s work.
Following a recent accident in which the storyteller/actress/writer was struck by a car as a pedestrian in Fayette County, Vuranch has recovered with a new enthusiasm for doing what she does best.
“After the accident in July (2011), I was flown to Charleston. It was pretty serious. I had to take a couple months off from working. But I’m back and everything’s in perspective in life.”
A longtime adjunct instructor for speech, theater and Appalachian studies with Concord University, Vuranch is partnering for the fourth year with the university and the Coal Heritage Highway Authority to present the 2012 Coal Heritage Public Lecture Series at Erma Byrd Higher Education Center on Airport Road, Raleigh County.
The free-to-the-public series begins Feb. 6 with “Under These Hills: A Coal Miner’s Story” — a one-man performance of the life and work of a coal miner presented by retired miner Fred Powers.
While a local celebrity of sorts for her performances, Vuranch has arts, culture and history organizations across the nation turning to her for her ability to translate history into a visual, audible experience surpassing textual accounts.
The art of her living history performance style is called Chautauqua, which brings history to life through a 30- to 45-minute original monologue executed in character. It includes a time for the audience to ask questions of the character, followed by a discussion in which the audience asks questions for an out-of-character, contemporary point of view.
“There aren’t a bunch of us doing it, but there is a pretty strong (Chautauqua) community,” explains Vuranch, who likens choosing her favorite adaptation to choosing between one’s children.
“It takes about a year to develop a character. If you really don’t agree with the politics or ideals represented by a character, it’s hard to spend time developing it.”
So, most of the characters adapted by Vuranch represent notions she is at least compatible with.
“Last year, I did Louella Parsons, the first ever gossip columnist. She was funny …” but when approached to characterize a famous fashion designer most outside the fashion world would be unfamiliar with, Vuranch declined. The investment of time and research was too much for another historical figure most would learn about only through Google.
The Humanities Council of Nebraska commissioned her latest interstate endeavor to recreate the life of popular author and pioneer child Laura Ingalls Wilder. As in her plays of Pearl S. Buck and Clara Barton, Vuranch takes the popular historical figure and translates her life on stage, in a way that encourages audience interaction. She will perform her Ingalls Wilder history for two weeks each year for the next four years in Nebraska.
Best known for her one act plays that comment accurately and entertainingly on the social and political issues of her characters’ times, Vuranch has transformed herself into indomitable author and activist Buck, American Red Cross founder Barton and Union organizer and labor activist Mother Jones, among others.
But it is coal history she is most passionate about. In her popular regional production, Coal Camp Memories, she grows up as Hallie Marie, a part created from the weaving together of oral histories from women who lived in coal camps from different decades. Inside the aproned character who loses her husband to a mining accident, Vuranch leans on a well-worn broom that is no less powerful a sword.
“Yes, coal camps were a different way to live, but the life of poverty also had a tremendous sense of community,” she explains.
“Everybody knew how men worked in the coal community, but no one knew how women worked.” Vuranch, whose masters degree is in coal history, points out through her characters the strongly matriarchal society within yesterday’s coal towns, where men were mostly subterranean providers, working sight-unseen, long enough and hard enough to absent themselves from daily aboveground life.
Due to the inherent danger of their occupation, men couldn’t be counted on for their longevity, and with the volatile nature of the industry, couldn’t be counted on as sole supporters for the duration of a family. It was a trying, tenuous existence, but one in which everyone depended on one another.
“In Appalachia, we had been such a strong patriarchal society, but in the coal communities it became a matriarchal society. Father was underground, (the family) never knew when he might die. The woman became the glue that held the family together. That’s also been documented in Wales and other mining communities,” states Vuranch.
Vuranch has traveled to other countries to authenticate her research on the effects of mining on society, including Wales and its rich mining history.
“I performed there and have in 30 states in the U.S.,” she explains. She says the characteristics of mining towns and those who inhabit them are comparable the world over.
For those who don’t know scrip from script, or for people desiring to learn about their own coal heritage, Vuranch is hopeful her latest installment of lectures and performances will enhance everyone’s understanding of how coal miners have lived through the centuries and how they live today.
“I want people to have an awareness of issues cultural issues within coal mining and how those have an impact on today’s life. Even if you are not involved in the coal community, you still live here. It still impacts you.”