Stephanie Morrison-Hrbek, Co-Founder and Choreographer, Near West Theatre


For theater artist and choreographer
Stephanie Morrison-Hrbek, there are few greater pleasures than when a production at Cleveland's Near West Theater comes together on all levels and plays to a full house. When a cast of 50 or more nailed a performance of Once on This Island, for instance, she loved how all of the puzzle pieces required for a sizable musical production fell into place in a “nexus of pride, creation and collaboration” among participants of all ages.

“Those performances recharge you,” she said. “But even going to rehearsals or auditions, where we’ll come in contact with hundreds of people, and to experience their passion becomes an electric exchange.”

One of the serendipitous results of this innovative community theater program, she added, is the emergence of an inter- generational educational component, in which a 10-year-old may end up teaching the latest dance choreography to an adult cast member.

These gratifying experiences are exactly what Morrison-Hrbek imagined and worked hard to develop when she founded Near West Theatre (NWT). The East Lansing, Michigan, native, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in French literature in 1977, relocated to Cleveland in 1978 to establish and direct the new theater and create a combined cultural and vocational learning opportunity for children.

One year later, she married George Hrbek and took a job teaching Spanish and English and directing musical productions with casts of up to 70 teens at Cleveland Central Catholic High School. It was there that she met her professional partner, Bob Navis Jr., when he came to her rescue to accompany a musical she was directing in 1980. She left in 1982 to turn NWT into a year-round program.

For the past three decades, through the force of her animated and energetic personality, she has enriched and transformed the lives of thousands of children, teens and adults by using theatrical performances to improve their life skills, enhance their self-esteem and create lasting relationships. NWT provides a creative, constructive outlet for children and teens during often-unsupervised hours. Participants rehearse a minimum of four hours four times per week and acquire valuable trade skills while preparing for productions by learning how to use power tools, do carpentry, design lighting and so on.

Moreover, NWT has offered free after-school and summer programs to some 1,200 participants annually, while providing affordable or donated tickets to between 5,000 and 6,000 theater goers each year. NWT productions have unsettled, inspired, enchanted and provoked audiences by addressing the issues of prejudice, classism, stereotyping, discrimination and violence.

Morrison-Hrbek's accomplishments have gained national recognition. NWT was the first organization to receive Ohio's Governor’s Award for Community Development and Participation (2003). It has also been awarded Charter One Bank's “Champions in Action” award (2006) and Cindy and Telly Awards for Breaking Through, an oral history to destigmatize mental illness. Morrison-Hrbek herself has been presented with a Lifetime of Idealism Award from City Year (2002). 

In 1986, Morrison-Hrbek turned over NWT’s artistic direction to Bob Navis so that she could focus on fulfulling her responsibilities as executive director by advancing NWT’s growth, reach and creative vision as an arts and educational institution. She has also made time to serve on the board of Cleveland's Community Partnership for Arts and Culture and the city's Community Relations Board.

Currently, she is partnering with the Gordon Square Arts District to move NWT into a permanent spaceone that will continue to burnish the legacy of exciting theater productions and productive educational opportunities that Morrison-Hrbek and her staff have so generously provided for Cleveland’s youth and adults.


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

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