Natalie Epstein, Community Arts Leader


People who know and work with Natalie Epstein consider her a force of nature in her passion and support for the arts.

“Natalie motivates everyone and every group she strives to serve without any thought of self-promotion,” says Ron Wilson, chair of the department of theater and dance at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). “I know of no other individual who has been so unfailingly committed not only to supporting the arts personally, but to creating entities to sustain the various arts groups.”

In 1991, Epstein cemented her support of the theater program at CWRU when, at the request of the then Dean Susan Fergusson, she founded the Friends of Eldred Theater. FOET helps develop a broader audience and increase awareness in the community of the program and productions. Under Epstein’s leadership as president for the past 20 years, FOET has helped fund a variety of significant additions to the undergraduate curriculum and was also instrumental in supporting the creation of the joint CWRU/Cleveland Play House M.F.A. program nine years ago. 

Part of the money raised goes to scholarships; each graduate also receives a $500 stipend to pay the cost of the annual actor’s showcase in New York. Epstein has been known on several occasions to write personal notes on, sign and hand-address more than 750 letters to FOET’s mailing list. “I do get writer’s cramp,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s a labor of love.”

Her deep love for theater originated when she had her first theater experiences at five. She went on to major in theater at CWRU. When her children were older, she returned to CWRU to earn her master’s degree in theater. She also worked as a freelance actor, director, and writer in nonprofessional theater, and she taught and directed at Hawken and Hathaway Brown schools. A show she directed called 100 Years of Women’s Education at Flora Stone Mather caught the attention of Dean Fergusson, who knew CWRU’s struggling theater program needed a shot in the arm, and had decided that Epstein was just the person to administer it.

Epstein was also to serve, from 1996 to 2004, on CWRU’s Visiting Committee and on the Special Task Force on the Need for a Performing Arts Center. She has provided critical support to the College of Arts and Sciences as a capital campaign co-chair.

While she has served on the board of directors of both the Cleveland Play House and the Great Lakes Theater Festival, Epstein's relationship with the latter has had a special place in her heart because of her love of classical theater. She’s been involved with GLTF (now Great Lakes Theater) for more than 30 years, and in that time has helped shaped the theater’s future in transformational ways. She was president when what was then kinown as the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival moved from Lakewood Civic Auditorium to the as-yet-unrenovated Ohio Theatre. “Mary Bill, the managing director, and I looked at each other,” Epstein fondly recalls, “and we said, ‘This is such a disaster. It’s going to be wonderful!’”

She also served on the committee to oversee the renovation of, and Great Lakes’s move into, the Hanna Theatre, and she has been serving as co-chairperson and now chairperson of the board for several years. She’s most proud of several recent accomplishments, including Great Lakes’s 15 percent increase in revenue and box office and 20 percent increase in student attendance this season.

“When people of divergent walks of life sit down in a theater and it gets dark, we eliminate all of our differences,” she says. “We are just one people watching and responding, and that’s very important to me.”

In 2008 Epstein was recognized with the Cleveland State University President’s Medal. The following year she received the Gries Family Foundation (of the Cleveland Jewish Federation) Award for Community Leadership and was voted into the Cleveland Heights High School Hall of Fame. As the summer of 2011 drew to a close, she was full of excitement—celebrating the 20th anniversary of FOET and welcoming the class of 2015 acting majors to CSU.

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •