Changing the Cincinnati Conversation through Art

This is one of those Cincinnati stories, so let's begin by connecting the dots.  

Once upon a time, or as one might say, back in the day: Dean Blase (spouse of Shake It Record's co-owner Darren Blase - to be perfectly Cincinnati about it) was teaching at Indian Hills High School.  Dean had a student named William DeWitt from Kenwood who distinguished himself in all manner of accomplishments, and graduated from Indian Hills High. He subsequently moved to the east coast where he attended Brown University.  While at Brown, William met a young man named Ethan Philbrick, of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.  

William and Ethan fell together and, in time, their romance blossomed into love. In 2008 they were married in Ethan's home town.  The couple returned to Cincinnati so that William could attend medical school at UC.  Ethan accompanied him and took up a number of pursuits including life as a performance artist.  

Once in Cincinnati, Ethan learned that William's not forgotten high school English teacher, Dean Blase, was now at Clark Montessori (the nation's first public Montessori high school) and married with a 4-year-old daughter, Francine, who yearned to play the cello.  Thus, as Dean tells it, she opened the door one day to find Ethan standing in her doorway, wearing overalls and carrying a cello.  

A spontaneous music lesson ensued and Ethan's new prodigy took an immediate shine to him.  The lesson, according to Blase, ended with her daughter conducting Ethan who "played a stirring rendition of 'On Top of Old Smokey.'"  During these lessons, Ethan and Dean became acquainted. One day, Dean explained that she was in the process of teaching her students about the poet, playwright, and theatre director Bertolt Brecht. Dean explained to Philbrick that she found Brecht's work important because his theater championed the use of art as a catalyst for social change.  Dean said that from her point of view, "it simply is not enough to teach literature.  The subject matter needs be tied in a very real way to the world and what is happening in the world."

Such a pragmatic emphasis of art intrigued Philbrick who began to imagine how large public performances might be focused so to cause the community to examine the world about them.

"I had a vision in my mind of those all those viral videos that are all over the place now," he says. "The ones that show a normal train station and then all the sudden everyone's doing some suspiciously choreographed dance."

"I envisioned doing something like those train station pieces," Philbrick says, "except I envisioned doing something focused that could lead to a conversation about this city. I wanted to do something that could lead to change."

Philbrick comes by his interest in performance art naturally. Prior to this time he had created any number of videos which featured him, or small scale groups, engaging in performance theater throughout Cincinnati. A number of those pieces can be found on his blog, Ethan Philbrick Dances in Public.

The early pieces were designed if not to shock, then certainly to generate thought and conversation.  In one piece, entitled Slippage #1, Philbrick stands in the walkway between the Netherland Hilton and Macy's, clipboard in hand, playing the part of public lobbyist. Initially, Philbrick is dressed in a pinstripe suit with neatly shorn beard and hair.  He is the epitome of professionalism as he engages unsuspecting citizens passing by.  However, as the piece continues, Philbrick begins to suffer, what he calls, "identity slippage."

The pinstripe suit gives way to jewelry, makeup, and high heels. By the end of the piece, he has wrapped his head, and his torso in pink gift ribbon, pulling hard enough as he ties himself so as to furrow the flesh on his face. He begins to walk with pronounced problems. For Philbrick, this, and other similar pieces are about bridging boundaries. Philbrick calls them "permeable boundaries." His primary concern - reducing the isolation of minority groups and individuals in society -  also has its roots in personal experiences.
"Every time I choose not to walk down the street holding hands with the one I love", he says, "I'm acutely aware of that isolation."

Writer, Kathy Wilson, is a friend of the Blases and happened to meet Philbrick during one of Francine Blase's cello lessons. She counts herself among those impressed by Philbrick's ability. Wilson is impressed with Philbrick's positive outlook and ability to get things done. She cites his organization of a large gay & lesbian march at UC last year, subsequent to an assault upon a gay UC student, as proof of his ability to make things happen.

Wilson sees Philbrick as, "one of a group of bright young activists who are here to get things done. They understand that bitterness has never solved a problem."

Wilson, in fact, was sufficiently impressed with Philbrick's positive outlook that she agreed to have him film her at her home while she narrated a short video that would serve to introduce a project that Philbrick had devised for Dean's junior English students at Clark Montessori.

Philbrick's project cincinnatiUS has its roots in the countless divides that exist in most urban cities. He notes divisions of class and race between neighborhoods and the traditional east/west division that has always existed within Cincinnati.  It is precisely these issues that Philbrick hopes to address in staging a series of performances in Cincinnati's largest public spaces.

The first performance occurred on a rainy Saturday this March at Findlay Market.  The events at Findlay involved Dean Blase and 85 of her tenth and eleventh grade students who were divided into four groups. The first group circulated freely throughout the market speaking with patrons and locals; three other groups rotated at set locations and performed set pieces.

Crowds stopped to watch the spontaneous performances - most of which dealt with highlighting the divisions and problems common, if not unique, to Cincinnati. The performances were engaging and moving, even motivating, given the energy and sincerity of the performers. Both Blase and Philbrick see the Findlay Market performance, and two more planned performances throughout the city; as an opportunity to generate a conversation throughout the community.  

"I'm just hoping to focus a conversation," Philbrick says, "to start a conversation, and I want to ask, 'what do you want your city to be?'"

Because Philbrick is financing these performances with monies received from the city - he was one of the very last artists to receive a grant under the city's now eliminated arts funding program - he says he feels an obligation to the city, at large, to prove the value and need for public sponsorship of such performances.

Dean also focuses on the pragmatic side of these projects. She notes that many of her students have become very enthusiastic over the progress and have come to actually believe that they can be forbearers of change.   More importantly, Blase notes students are making curriculum connections with Philbrick's project.

"This exercise is important as it helps students tie the lessons of the classroom to the real world. They are beginning to see the relevance between their education and the city in which they live."  Blase says that her students are starting to believe that "this could be something new."  

She also notes that these public performances are important because Clark Montessori (which is currently located in a temporary building) does not offer drama or public speaking courses.  

"These projects also offer the students the opportunity to use their voices and bodies to communicate important ideas," she notes. 

Which, at the end of the day, seems to be Philbrick's point.
Photography by Scott Beseler and Tiffani Fisher
Mix it up Cincinnati
Ethan Philbrick
The group gathers at Findlay before the performances
Students make connections
Ethan and Francine
Together we are one
Ethan Philbrick in studio

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