When my husband and I go to concerts or any performance, of course we look around for anyone we know. With amazing regularity, we spot a woman with a familiar head of long gray-red hair, wearing colorful glasses and a flowy dress, using a cane or maybe a rolling walker. Yep, there’s Amy, we’ve said for years, always with amused pleasure at her sheer omnipresence at the cultural events of the city.
She has health issues that would keep most people home. But Amy Katzman shows up.
She shares our interest in rootsy rock and folk, funk and legacy rock bands, serious theater and anything from Louisiana. But while we don’t do opera much, Amy goes to all of them. She’s also always at every ballet and any contemporary dance concert, her favorite art form. While we go to several productions at theaters around town, she has season tickets to the Playhouse, Ensemble and the Know. She went to 20 of the 30 Fringe Festival shows this year. If we do something outside our usual interests, like concert:nova, there she is. I see her at Mercantile Library lectures. Performance art. Neighborhood festivals. She does something every night of the week. Well, often she does stuff all day.
She’s aware it could be called an obsession. She’s trying to control her FOMO (fear of missing out). But there’s just so much great stuff to see and do. “It’s amazing how much there is and what high quality,” she said.
There really is. Every night. Looking at her packed calendar and listening to her makes me feel like there is a banquet of art and entertainment in Cincinnati and I’m just dining on crumbs.
Amy never mentioned that she had MS until years after I met her, but she has, since her 20s. It flares up from time to time. Hence the cane or walker. Having so much time out of commission with the pain made it hard to really develop her legal career. She has a master’s degree in Admiralty Law from Tulane University in New Orleans. She got a music education at the same time. “That was my favorite year,” she said. She went to every single thing she could, in a city that lives and breathes music. She then went to Columbus, where she continued the habit, and then returned to work with her father in Cincinnati.
In 2008, I heard she had cancer. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia. “It was not a good prognosis,” she said, “It had a 10% survival rate.” Two doctors in the country specialize in it, and one is Dr. John Byrd, then in Columbus. (He has recently moved to Cincinnati to head up the Internal Medicine Department at UC.) “Dr. John B.Y.R.D.,” she emphasized, to make sure I knew how important he has been to her. He put her in a trial for a drug that probably wouldn’t work so she could then try another drug he thought might. “But he didn’t let me into that second trial,” she said. “He told me the cancer was completely gone. He calls me his miracle patient.”
It wasn’t quite that simple. It came back, she had another drug, she’s been up against it for 14 years now. Oh, it did take a back seat a few years ago when she had a heart attack and a quadruple bypass surgery. Of course, I kept thinking we were not going to be spotting her at shows any more, but nothing seems to stop her. I saw her just last week at the Cincinnati Opera production of “Fierce,” and at a performance of New Orleans funk bassist George Porter at Fretboard Brewery.
Is it any surprise that she thinks her self-fashioned program of arts therapy might be the reason she’s still here? She does cardiac rehab, but she also keeps up the program of soul-feeding music and words and dance. And the close-up view of her mortality maybe drives her not to say no to things.
During COVID, she found all kinds of satisfying experiences online, like streaming Jacob’s Pillow dance festival. But even though she could still be doing that, she’d rather go out, with a mask and a regimen of Evusheld, an investigative drug that gives some immunity to people with compromised immune systems.
She knows all the people at all the box offices in town. “They are really kind to me about accommodating what I need,” she said. “Sometimes I think I live a selfish life, just indulging myself and my love of performance.”
I’m not sure about that. I mean, who cares? She’s earned it.
But should we all be a little more like Amy? Well, I know I couldn’t keep it up. But seeing someone doing what they love to the absolute maximum is a lesson for anyone. And showing up matters. After all, it’s not really art if there’s no one there to witness it. A lively, meaningful arts scene needs performers and patrons, but also, obviously, needs audiences and paying customers. They do it to delight us, so go be delighted.
“I’ve been to performances where I was the only person there other than the performer’s mother,” said Amy. She often chooses between two possibilities for the day by deciding which one needs her presence more. Some of her favorite performances have been the least mainstream: She learned to love opera after seeing Cincinnati Opera’s 1998 production of Janacek’s “Jenufa” directed by Nick Muni.” She remembers performances like “Wit” at the Playhouse with Dale Hodges, or Dayton Contemporary Dance’s “Children of the Passage” with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and the silent Japanese Butoh performers at the Taft years ago.
So go see the local band, the experimental theater, your first contemporary dance performance. Take a chance, open your mind, and get a therapeutic dose. And look around for Amy.
Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.