Cleveland Theater Legend Dorothy Silver Dead at 92

Dorothy Silver sits in the spotlight of a barren stage, her arms outstretched, in the 2011 Beck Center production of "Wings."
Dorothy Silver performs in the 2011 Beck Center production of "Wings." [Beck Center for the Arts]

Cleveland actor and director Dorothy Silver died over the weekend as the result of a major stroke, according to her family. She was 92.

Over the course of a seven-decade career, Silver and her late-husband Reuben produced and/or appeared in hundreds of plays at venues across greater Cleveland. That theatrical output landed the couple a Cleveland Arts Prize in 1984. In a 2003 Ideastream interview, Dorothy Silver said the city was a good place to balance a private life with a career in the arts.

“Even though, as the economic situation becomes more perilous nationally, that always impacts on what you are doing,” she said. “But, we've been very fortunate to be here and very happy to be in Cleveland.”

Dorothy and Reuben Silver record a radio play in the Ideastream studios [Ideastream Public Media]

Over the years, Silver and her husband starred on stages ranging from Karamu House to Ensemble Theatre to Beck Center for the Arts. Beck Artistic Director Scott Spence said Dorothy and Reuben were joined at the hip.

You know, he directed her and she directed him, and they acted together and they worked in theaters together,” he said. I've been here 30 years. And from the very moment I arrived, you knew the name Dorothy and Reuben Silver.”

The Detroit natives met in 1948, when Reuben saw Dorothy in a play at Wayne State University. In 2003, he told Ideastream about being impressed by the acting chops of this woman he saw on the stage.

“And she was brand new," he said. "And I thought, well, that's not the way it's supposed to work. You're supposed to come in and work hard and struggle. And after a while, you get good in this. This lady was good right away.”

Reuben and Dorothy Silver at Karamu, 1975 [Cleveland Arts Prize]

A year later they were married. In the mid-1950s, they joined the staff at Karamu, where they acted in and produced plays for over 20 years. Reuben left Karamu House in 1976 to make way for Black leadership and moved to the Cleveland State University (CSU) theater department. CSU professor emeritus of theater Joe Garry directed the couple separately and together in several productions over the years and said it's hard to now speak about Dorothy in the past tense. Garry noted that she had a rare insight about her craft.

"We talk about talent and we talk about charisma and star quality," he said. "But there is this element of profound intelligence when someone is able to look at a role and see it so dimensionally and to see it in a way that is so illuminating, not only for the audience, but for everybody else who's lucky enough to be with her on the stage."

Dorothy Silver in Joe Garry's 1991 CSU production of "The Visit." [Chuck Humel]

Dorothy went on to head the performing and visual arts department at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), where the Halle Theatre’s annual new play competition was named after her.

After stepping down from those posts, the couple continued a full life performing on stage as well as in radio plays, movie roles and commercials. Dorothy's film credits include "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Promised Land." But, one of her lasting legacies is less visible — offering support and encouragement to young people trying to make their own marks in theater.

Karamu CEO Tony Sias said Dorothy was a source of solace in his early says on the job. Sias took over the reins of the century-old institution in 2015 when Karamu was on the edge of economic catastrophe. Sias said Silver contacted him privately with advice on how to manage the crisis.

I deeply appreciated her support of my leadership in my first year and a half as we continued to redirect Karamu and in a new strategic direction,” he said.

Longtime director Sarah May said Silver was a strong role model, a coach, a mentor. That's one way that Dorothy Silver's impact will endure.

"Especially, I think, for the women who worked with her," May said. "People want to pass a little bit of her on to everybody, you know, that comes after them."

Scott Spence said that Dorothy appeared in seven Beck productions, including the Sarah May-directed "Wings" in 2011. Spence can't believe believe that neither she nor Reuben will ever take another bow.

“It's just unfathomable to know that our community is without both of them,” he said. “But, man, their legacies are going to live on for a long, long time.”

[Cleveland Arts Prize]

 

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