Daniel McNamara is down in the basement, looking for puppets.
I watch as he sorts through a bookshelf stuffed full of them.
“This one’s Violence,” he says, showing me a grimacing, hollow-eyed papier mache mask that was once attached to a gown.
“That’s his name, Violence?” I ask.
“No, he’s just - Violence. Like that’s what he represents. Those are his hands over there.”
He points to two oversized clenched fists in a bin nearby, alongside more heads and piles of cloth.
If sorting through dismembered puppets in a dimly lit old basement sounds ghoulish - well, it is.
But only sort of.
First of all, Daniel’s a cheerful guy. Also, he’s not just a crazy person (though he’d probably take warmly to that assignation) but also a real, live, professional puppeteer and theater director. All of which makes the scene much less creepy.
The puppets date from the days he and his wife Diana Sette ran the Possibilitarian Puppet Theater out of our house. The couple made a lot of their creations down here, often with the help of kids from the neighborhood.
The theater staged shows that touched on issues of social justice, race and politics. Violence, for example, was featured in a show called Angel of History, which was billed as a passion play and circus. It played at Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Tremont.
Possibilitarian Puppet Theatre is now officially defunct, Daniel says, though his and Diana’s creations still find employment in other productions around town. He’s here today, for example, to collect puppets for a kids’ theater camp he’s running at Ohio City Theatre Project this summer.
He tosses a few more odds and ends into a box and we head upstairs for coffee. He wants to tell me about his own history in this house: How he - a young white guy from Cleveland Heights - had come to buy it, what his and Diana’s experiences here had been like, and why they decided to leave.
Seth joins us at the kitchen table and I pour mugs of coffee. Daniel takes milk and sugar - he likes his coffee adulterated, he says - and he pulls out a thick binder of photos.
“I haven’t looked through these in ages,” he says.
The photos document the Possibilitarians’ heyday, between about 2011 and 2013, when they’d stage shows on an ad hoc basis, inviting the general public but especially reaching out to neighbors on 117th Street. Other puppeteers and friends from around the country often stopped by to help with the shows and stay for a while in the house.
The couple also had tenants who had nothing to do with puppets or theater - but became fans anyway.
“There’s our first tenant,” he says, pointing to a tall man watching a show in the basement. He was an ex-offender who, sadly, ended up going back to prison.
Daniel and Diana moved to Cleveland in 2010, after working for several years as full-time company members for Bread and Puppet Theater, a social activist puppet theater based in rural Vermont. For the previous four years the couple had been returning to Daniel’s hometown for the holidays to help stage a New Year’s Eve parade in Cleveland Heights.
They found the house on E. 117th Street by chance. Daniel’s father, a physical therapist, had been making house calls to an elderly Czech woman named Eleanor, who’d been living in the house since she was born - one of the neighborhood’s few remaining Eastern Europeans. Eleanor was moving to an assisted living facility in Parma, and sold the young couple her house for $15,900.
So began more than two years of intensive theater-making under the Possibilitarian moniker. Daniel conceived and directed shows, while Diana handled publicity, production and coordinating volunteers. A lot of times, kids from the neighborhood got involved, helping the couple craft puppets in the basement.
Meanwhile, Diana was fostering her interest in urban agriculture by gardening in their backyard and, later, in an empty lot where a house was torn down (the site of the current Possibilitarian garden).
It all sounds pretty idyllic, so I ask Daniel why they decided to leave.
He takes a deep breath. This is going to be complicated.
“First, our daughter, Rosemary, tested positive for lead poisoning,” he says. The assumed source was the house - its exterior paint, some of its old fixtures. “Also, in some ways Diana and I lived in different neighborhoods. We both loved it here, but while I always felt safe walking around, as a woman she didn’t always.”
There were personal and creative issues unrelated to the neighborhood, too. At the beginning of 2013, shortly after Rosemary was born, the couple temporarily split - to find themselves as individuals after years of working side-by-side 24 hours a day.
Also, Daniel was feeling frustrated by the Possibilitarian model. He felt it was too tied to his past work with Bread & Puppet and no longer creatively satisfying.
As for the couple's whiteness in a predominantly black neighborhood? That's a complex topic that we'll delve into with Daniel and Diana more deeply in the future -- perhaps when we help facilitate arts programming in August.
When the couple reunited, they decided to start fresh - in Ohio City, where they still live. Daniel still works in theater, and Diana is a youth manager for Green Corps, the urban agriculture work-study program at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. They rent out their Buckeye house to a rotating cast of tenants, including little old us.
They’re happy in their new home on the other side of town, but both still have fond memories of E. 117th Street.
When I reach Diana by phone a few days after Daniel’s visit, she remembers a typical night in the house.
“One time, we were hosting this group of women who were biking from Minneapolis along the southern edge of the Great Lakes,” she remembers. “At the same time, an avant garde theatre troupe, Insurgent Theatre, came through to stage a show in our basement about mass incarceration.
“So in one night, down in our basement, we had out of town actors, people from the neighborhood and a group of blond women. It was pretty random, and pretty special.”
Tyshon, the little boy who joined me in fleeing the pit bull the other day, was among the attendees - even though the show featured nudity. Diana had his mom sign a permission slip saying it was OK for him to attend.
Does she ever miss the house?
“Oh yeah. I still feel like some of my spirit still lives there,” she says. The couple even hopes to move back someday, once Rosemary is older, the lead is remediated and the garden is more established as a community resource.
“I will say, it’s been helpful to go there in limited doses. When I’m there, something about the house is very consuming. There are all these things that want attention and care.”