I first saw the Possibilitarian Puppet Theater at the 2010 IngenuityFest in Cleveland, Ohio, late in September. They were operating in a large tent, doing a simple puppet show...but with a deeply important message, one of social hope, disgust at the way things are, and a real vigor to make life better.
Daniel McNamara - one half of the troop, along with Diana Sette - explains the principle behind their project:
"What is Possibilitarianism? This current situation which seems to be totally stuck and unchangeable has somehow managed to convince us all that we really have no control over what is going on around us. This situation is based on the very simple idea that it is not possible for things to be any other way than what they are, that these epic forces and systems are simply too large and complicated for us to even understand let alone have an impact on.
"We say that it is POSSIBLE for things to be different, and in fact every time we parade in the streets, or perform a puppet show, or bake bread in a wood fired oven in the back yard made from scavenged wood from the neighborhood, we manifest that difference for at least a few moments or minutes and demonstrate the possibility of things being other than what they are. It IS POSSIBLE that the people of the City of Cleveland could en masse decide to come out into the streets and demand that the U.S. government withdraw its financial support for the repressive Egyptian government and show that it actually cares about Freedom and Democracy. That obviously isn't happening, but that doesn't mean that we aren't going to go in the streets, because we must face the world we live in, in all its beauty and brutality.
"Possibilitarianism is unreasonable and insane because reason and sanity debate whether or not the latest drug the state wants to use to kill human beings is 'humane' enough and does not subject the recipient to too much pain and suffering.
"Possibilitarianism is small-time, and manifests in rooms full of humans, or sometimes in the streets, and then fades back into the individual hearts and minds of a few.
"Long live possibilitarianism!"
Suffice it to say, I was blown away with their performance at IngenuityFest, excited to see artists so eloquently yet accessibly pick apart what's wrong in our society, and show how it could be better.
In a world of shallow pundits spitting out worthless and empty vile, it's refreshing to hear people talking with some sense about social change. Naturally, I hunted the Possibilitarian Puppet Theater down to find out how something so revolutionary could come from a city so corrupt as Cleveland, Ohio...
How did this get started?
Daniel McNamara: Four years ago we wanted to celebrate New Years in a way that didn't necessitate pretending that we don't live in a totally insane country for an evening in order to just party and "celebrate" the New Year coming. The Rotten Ideas, the demons, the horribly oppressive political and economic forces looming above us were simply far too present and oppressive to simply be ignored on such an important day of the Year, the Day when the whole New Year is standing in front of you. So naturally, we decided if we buried as many of the Rotten Ideas as we could manage, and got as many people as possible to help us, then we could start the year off at least aware of what we are up against, and feeling the power of numbers to defeat it.
So we built a Rotten Idea Dragon and solicited Rotten Ideas from the public, and we gave it a proper 12 degree blizzard funeral march and "buried" it on Coventry in Cleveland Heights. The Possibilitarian Puppet Theater was born, albeit not under that name at the time.
Why puppetry? Is there a resurgence of this artform?
DM: When capitalism finally collapses there might be a resurgence of puppetry, but it's certainly not resurging just yet. Puppetry is the oldest human form of artistic expression, and will be around for as long as there are humans on this earth.
Why puppetry? We are all puppets. We are puppets of our cars when we drive them, we are puppets of our text machines when we sit there and press the little buttons, I am being puppeteered by this computer at this moment as I type, when we go to a job we can't stand and would never voluntarily do if not for the illusion of necessity - we are puppets of this totally irrational economic system. When we reach for one brand of beer over another we may not realize that it's because of that commercial we saw the other night on prime time and maybe at this point we don't care either way.
We have become a society of puppets. Puppetry seems like the most honest occupation in such an environment, which is telling because honesty like puppetry is pretty much worthless these days.
What kind of effect can art have on social structures?
DM: Art and Cultural Work is an essentially important ingredient in ANY social structure. The current mess our country is in is very much connected to the predominant cultural diet being enjoyed by the public: Television, Advertising, and Movies. Yes, I am qualifying Television as art because, for a large majority in this country, it plays the role that art has played in every human society, as an essential ingredient in its functioning as a society. It establishes cultural norms, it promotes a value system, it helps the consumer, watcher, looker, reader, understand and identify what social structure they are apart of.
Television and movies and a majority of the cultural mediums being consumed right now are made by capitalism, while our puppetry is made by Possibilitarianism. We are trying to give birth to a new social structure.
What kind of message are you trying to spread?
DM: Possibilitarianism over things-are-stuck-like-they-are-they-always-have-been-and-always-will-beism.
Is it harder or easier to spark social change with art in Cleveland than other cities?
DM: To me the only sparking of social change worth anything in this country we are in is total revolution, which means political, cultural, economic transformation and starting anew. In so much as most of Cleveland has been so horribly screwed in so many ways by all three of these current predominant social structures, it IS possible to finagle that potentially depressing situation into some kind of optimism.
What is the Funeral March for the Rotten Ideas?
DM: A parade in the street which acknowledges the great power of these Rotten Ideas over our Lives, and then acknowledges our great power over their lives by throwing them on the ground and "burying" them. This year we did a funeral Pyre actually.
What kind of impact have you seen from your efforts?
DM: None whatsoever, which is exactly why we need everyone's help.
Are there more groups like this in the Cleveland area, and beyond?
DM: There is a cultural Insurrection happening in the back woods of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont right now that's been fermenting for almost 50 years called "the Bread and Puppet" theater. There is also "ALL The Saints Theater company" in Richmond, Virginia, "Puppet Underground" in Washington D.C., "Modern Times" theater company in East Hardwick, Vermont, Claire Dolan in West Glover Vermont, The Harrell brothers in Burgaw North Carolina, RPM puppet conspiracy currently based in Vermont, El Teatro Indigena de la Sierra Tarahumara organized by Teresa Camou who works with Indiginous groups in Mexico, Tom Stock who does super underground puppetry in New York State, Teatro del Corvo in Milano Italy, Penelope Hillfrau from Italy working in the states, Jason Hicks based in New York, Great Small works in New York City, and many others in various states of activity or inactivity all across the states and the world. Not necessarily a "RESURGENCE" but certainly a cultural movement, Yes.
Do you tour around, or mainly stick to Cleveland?
DM: We have toured Berlin and some of Germany, and we went to D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia on a little tour this fall. Mostly we are in Cleveland for now.
The Possibilitarian Puppet Theater is always active. You can see some of their performances here:
And check in with them here: