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Dramatic Achievements

Friends of Eldred Theater celebrates its 20th anniversary, and its president receives a Cleveland Arts Prize

By Arthur Evenchik

Published in fall 2011

As a theater and English major at Flora Stone Mather College, Natalie Epstein often performed on the stage of Eldred Theater. In recent decades, she has been one of the theater department’s most loyal and influential supporters. Photo by Robert Muller.

As a theater and English major at Flora Stone Mather College, Natalie Epstein often performed on the stage of Eldred Theater. In recent decades, she has been one of the theater department’s most loyal and influential supporters. Photo by Robert Muller.

Natalie Epstein (FSM ’49, GRS ’74) never misses an opening night.

Each time the curtain rises on a new production by the Department of Theater, you will find her in the audience, surrounded by other patrons she has assembled for the evening. For them, the experience of seeing a play affords a familiar pleasure, but that is not their only reason for attending every premiere. They also want to show their support for the students taking the stage.

The vitality of theater education at Case Western Reserve owes much to Epstein and to Friends of Eldred Theater (FOET), a donors’ group she founded in 1991 and has led ever since. At the same time, Epstein has contributed greatly to the development of professional theater in Cleveland. For both achievements, she was honored in June with a special Cleveland Arts Prize—the Martha Joseph Prize for Distinguished Service to the Arts.

Department chair Ron Wilson, the Katharine Bakeless Nason Professor of Theater, met Epstein soon after he joined the faculty in 1999. He immediately recognized a kindred spirit—someone with a sophisticated understanding of theater as well as an absolute commitment to it. Working with FOET over the years, he has seen the results of that commitment.

“Natalie as president sets the tone for the Friends’ level of generosity—and it’s quite profound,” Wilson says. “I’ve come to depend on them in terms of ongoing financial support and moral support. There is no project, whether it’s academic or artistic, that they won’t reach out to help with. I’ve been around educational theater for a good while, and I’ve never encountered a group like this.”

More than Talent

Epstein’s relationship to the department goes back to the late 1940s, when she majored in theater and English at Flora Stone Mather College. “Those were the days when Barclay Leathem and Nadine Miles were here,” she says, referring to the department’s founder and one of its revered teachers. “They were very dedicated to serious theater. And I had been interested in theater since I was a child. I loved re-creating other lives.”

During her college years, the department’s University Players performed works by Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw, among others. “I was in everything they did, just about,” Epstein says. In one of her leading roles, she played Queen Elizabeth I in a production that was broadcast on Cleveland television. But she also recalls a summer doing melodramas—“fun plays,” she calls them—at Squire Valleevue Farm.

There was more to her undergraduate theater experience than acting; like everyone else in the program, Epstein cleaned paint pots and learned to run the lights. Meanwhile, she was also pursuing a broad literary education. When she learned that a course on James Joyce was offered at Adelbert College but not at Mather, she obtained special permission to register for it. The class was “pretty wonderful,” she says, still pleased that she didn’t miss out on the opportunity.

After graduating, Epstein applied her theatrical skills in new settings. While she and her husband Mort raised three sons, she created and directed major productions for The Temple – Tifereth Israel, the Jewish Community Federation and several other local organizations. In the early 1970s, she returned to CWRU to earn a master’s degree in theater. Eventually, she became a director of plays at Hawken School, and then a teacher and director at Hathaway Brown.

The latter experiences shaped Epstein’s ideas about theater education. “It became obvious to me that, for a director in a high school, it was more than talent as a director that was important,” she explains. “You had to understand these young people and what they needed, and how to develop them in as positive a way as you could.”

In 1988, Epstein was invited to direct an original musical for her alma mater: One Hundred Years of Women’s Education at Case Western Reserve University. As a result, she came to the attention of dean Suzanne Ferguson, now an emerita professor of English. It was Ferguson who asked her to create a friends group for theater. The idea appealed to Epstein because she knew that the department shared her philosophy.

“I was not interested in being involved with the slick, commercial development of students,” she says. “I thought you ruined them that way. You had to, number one, give them a fine basic education, and number two, give them skills that develop their creativity and their sensitivity to the material and their willingness to work collaboratively, because theater is definitely a collaborative art form.”

Epstein sat down with five of her friends to draft a mission statement. Then she went through the board lists of every arts organization in Cleveland and invited potential supporters to a reception hosted by university President Agnar Pytte and his wife, Anah. With that, Friends of Eldred Theater was launched.

Willing to Improvise

From the outset, the group sought to raise the theater department’s visibility, increase its audience and enhance students’ educational and performance opportunities. One of Epstein’s first ideas was to have the Friends meet for dinner and then attend premieres at Eldred Theater. After trying several restaurants, the group settled on Nighttown in Cleveland Heights as the regular venue for its Suppers at Six.

Kelly McCready (CWR ’13) played Emily in an Eldred Theater production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in April 2011. The previous fall, she studied acting at the Moscow Art Theatre. Photo by Peter Jennings.

Kelly McCready (CWR ’13) played Emily in an Eldred Theater production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in April 2011. The previous fall, she studied acting at the Moscow Art Theatre. Photo by Peter Jennings.

Other initiatives soon followed, some as the result of long-range planning, others in response to unanticipated needs. (As Wilson puts it, FOET is always willing to improvise.) The group bought stage equipment and furnished the Eldred lounge. It provided support for faculty members so they could take part in theater workshops and seminars around the country. FOET also established the Nadine Miles Fellowship for undergraduates wishing to spend a summer or a semester pursuing their theater studies in New York or London.

Epstein was an early advocate for creating a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in acting, which came about in 1996 through a partnership with The Cleveland Play House. Since then, FOET’s support has helped the program achieve national distinction. For instance, the group sponsors visits by guest artists such as Geoff Bullen, a teacher and director at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Since 2006, Bullen has conducted annual Shakespeare workshops for second-year MFA students as well as for undergraduates.

FOET’s generosity has also enabled MFA students to receive supplemental training from such programs as the Steppenwolf Theater School in Chicago, Canada’s National Voice Intensive and the International Stunt School in Seattle. When students are about to complete their degrees, FOET subsidizes their New York showcase, where they audition for theater agents and artists’ managers.

To welcome the newest MFA class, eight students entering what is now one of the nation’s most competitive acting programs, the Friends held a reception at Nighttown in August. Such events are a FOET tradition. But this one was doubly significant, since supporters were also celebrating the group’s 20th anniversary.

Worlds Not Common to Us

Epstein’s influence as a philanthropist and an advocate for the arts extends well beyond the university. Currently the board chair for the Great Lakes Theater Festival, she was part of the leadership team that planned and raised funds for the restoration of the Hanna Theatre in downtown Cleveland, the Festival’s home since 2008. She has also supported many of the city’s educational, medical and religious institutions. From 1997 to 2001, she and her husband co-chaired a capital campaign for the College of Arts and Sciences that raised $100 million, twice its original goal.

From her student days until now, Epstein has regarded theater as “the most humanizing of the arts.” She explained her view most fully in 2009, when the Jewish Community Federation presented her with the Gries Family Prize for Community Leadership.

“It is through theater that we have the opportunity of experiencing a variety of cultures, philosophies, human endeavors, moral and ethical dilemmas,” Epstein said.

“We are privileged to examine worlds not common to us. For a few moments, we are given insight into the ethnic, racial, religious, social or sexual elements that often divide us. And for a few moments, we are one community.”


For more information about Friends of Eldred Theater, please call Keli Schimelpfenig, manager of marketing and events for performing arts, at 216.368.1160, or write to

Page last modified: February 9, 2017