The Epsteins: Sister Power

Judith Epstein Fisher (left) and her sister, Deborah Epstein, share a laugh, a strong resemblance and an interest in the arts.
Alan Joslin
Judith Epstein Fisher (left) and her sister, Deborah Epstein, share a laugh, a strong resemblance and an interest in the arts.

By Sheila Barth

Published May 08, 2014, issue of May 08, 2014.

With professional trademarks that grace theaters, art galleries and magnificent structures, theater director/educator Judith Epstein Fisher (known professionally as Judy Braha) and her sister, architect/artist Deborah Epstein, both of Cambridge, inspire admiration with their artistic excellence, vision and acumen.

The Epstein (pronounced Ep-STYNE) sisters grew up in Philadelphia as part of an accomplished family, but have made their own individual marks in the Greater Boston arts world.

Judith Epstein Fisher Even as a middle schooler, the petite 61-year-old knew that theater was her passion. An assistant professor of directing and acting at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, Judith heads BU’s MFA directing program, is a longtime teacher in its school of theater, and is a popular freelance director.

“My grandmother, Frieda Epstein, was my big inspiration. She believed in me, and made me believe I was a very strong person and could do anything I want,” she said, adding that her grandmother took her to the ballet, plays, concerts and films. Judy and her husband, scientist Richard Fisher, named their adopted daughter from China, Frieda Yu Wen, after Judy’s grandmother.

A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s acting program, Judy started directing in her late 20s. At age 35, she switched her focus to directing and teaching. She prefers plays that profoundly affect audiences. Recently, she directed a stirring production of “Our Class” by Polish Catholic playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek. The provocative play, which spans eight decades, depicts how Jews were massacred by their neighbors in Jedwabne, Poland.

She also directed Joyce Van Dyck’s moving play, “Deported/a dream play,” which traces the Armenian genocide with a focus on two surviving women — Van Dyck’s grandmother and her lifelong friend, who immigrated to America. Judy hopes it inspired reflection.

“It has always been important for me to do thought-provoking pieces. I want people to go to the theater and expand their vision of the world. I appreciate theater as a form of entertainment, but I especially love theater that provokes deeper reflection,” Judy said.

Van Dyck, who teaches Shakespeare and playwriting at Harvard and Northeastern Universities, said, “Judy was absolutely essential to the creation of ‘Deported,’ developing the play with me and a group of actors over a period of several years. Her openness, her faith in me and in the process, her visionary imagination, and her playful, experimental approach made it possible for me to navigate the dark terrain of that play with joy and exhilaration.”

Award-winning actress Bobbie Steinbach, who has worked with Judy since 1980, agreed. “[Judy’s] work is always exceptional and innovative. She brings a lot to the table when she’s directing — images, sounds, music. She references things you read, and she’s very collaborative and creative. She’s my favorite director to work with — she understands actors and how to motivate us.”

Deborah Epstein As an architect and weaver, Deborah expresses herself in a different medium than her sister. She studied costume design at Barnard College and textiles at Rhode Island School of Design. She met her husband, Alan Joslin, at MIT architecture school. They married and worked independently before opening their Cambridge office in 2002. Among Alan’s showcase pieces is Tanglewood’s world-renowned Seiji Ozawa Hall.

Today, they are award-winning principals of Epstein Joslin Architects, Inc. They have worked on several area theater projects, including Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center.

Those who enter Shalin Liu are awed by the venue’s architectural beauty and acoustic perfection, and the signature project has netted the couple the opportunity to compete for concert halls throughout the U.S.

“They did an amazing job with this building,” said Mollie Byrnes, a Rockport Music-Shalin Liu Architecture committee member. “On the walls of the orchestra section, there are panels made of granite from Vietnam that mimic the color of granite from Cape Ann. The stone panels absorb some of the sound and decrease the music’s echoes.”

She points out that Deborah used her artistic sensibility as a weaver to create texture in the interior. “She blended a wall of woven wood and metal, allowing dappled light to shine through. It’s so unique, so beautiful, yet natural … It was Deborah’s idea to show the ocean. As an architect, she brings a whole new sensibility to a project,” Byrnes said.

In addition to their recent design of a welcome center at the Breakers mansion in Newport, R.I., they have created a jaw-dropping re-design of the Gloucester Stage Company (a project that is on hold, pending funding); designed the renovated C. Walsh Theatre at Suffolk University; and have done several residential projects throughout New England.

Deborah keeps one foot in architecture and another in art. She founded the Boston Society of Architects’ Artists and Architects Initiative, a series of lectures, studio visits and site tours. She remains interested and involved in weaving.

“Architecture and weaving feed each other aesthetically and technically,” she stated. Currently, she is designing scarves for the non-profit Haiti Project, which sells women’s handwork to a global market. Her woven work is also frequently exhibited in Amnon Goldman’s Mercury Gallery in Rockport, located across the street from Shalin Liu.

An Accomplished Family The sisters hail from a prominent family. Their uncle, the late Dr. Charles Epstein of Tiburon, Calif., was a renowned medical geneticist and a pioneer in Down Syndrome research. His wife, Dr. Lois Epstein, was a cancer researcher. Unfortunately, Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, targeted Charles in 1993, sending him a mail bomb that exploded upon opening. Despite serious injuries and subsequent surgeries, Charles continued working, garnering additional honors.

Judy and Deborah’s brother Eli, 55, is a professional French horn player who performed for 25 years with the Cleveland Symphony. Living in Brookline, he teaches at the Boston and New England Conservatories, and runs a free concert series called “Inside Out” in Boston. Another brother, Charlie, 57, is a professor of mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of several books.

Judy and Deborah’s parents, Herbert and Jean Epstein, moved to Watertown after retiring. Herbert is a pro bono immigration lawyer and violist, and Jean is a geriatric social worker who teaches at Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement.

Like their ancestors, the new Epstein generation boasts trailblazers in music, science, medicine, theater, the arts, and international humanity. Judy’s daughter Frieda is studying in France. Deborah’s son Julian, 27, is a paralegal, defending indigent people in the federal court system. He’s also a screenwriter/filmmaker. Her daughter Isabella, 23, is an assistant to the co-executive director of Pilobolus dance company, and spent a life-changing semester abroad, traveling to India, Argentina and South Africa, studying public health.

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