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Category Archives: performARTS
Mid-America Arts Alliance’s story is part of a recent KCPT The Local Show. Here is the link to the YouTube clip.
Mid-America Arts Alliance is one of those organizations that is not easily definable. They are multidisciplinary, multidivisional, multidirectional and multiregional, but however the agency is classified, their fundamental goal is “More Art for More People.”
A nonprofit regional arts organization, Mid-America Arts Alliance’s many programs include the arts and humanities traveling exhibition programs, ExhibitsUSA and NEH on the Road; professional development for arts professionals and artists; and funding support through grants to artists and arts organizations to enable them to realize their own vision for the arts in their community, says Chief Executive Officer Mary Kennedy.
“We are truly a multidisciplinary organization aimed at more art for more people and that means access, affordability and education. We bridge gaps and connect people in the exhibitions and performances,” she says. “Many of those who benefit from Mid-America Arts Alliance programming come from smaller communities and often rural ones. The organizations that bring in our exhibitions are smaller and provide a lot of services to the community. Our programs are responsive to their unique needs.” Mid-America Alliance serves the six-state region of Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Kennedy has been with Mid-America Arts Alliance for 24 years. She first served as curator of exhibitions for ExhibitsUSA and then took the helm 11 years ago. The organization also has Todd Stein serving as Chief Operating Officer. “It’s inside-outside. Todd supervises the staff and the financial information. I deal primarily with the external relationships, including our 42-member board as well as our funders and partners. I am also in communications with the governmental agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services …”
The newly-renovated Mid-America Arts Alliance building may be a new discovery for the Kansas City community, as evidenced during the last several First Fridays, when attendance topped 3,000 guests. What Kansas Citians may not know is the vast reach of the organization. “We handle a six-state region and some aspects are even national. Our activity takes us a lot of different places geographically and with the renovations, we can bring all those resources to a Kansas City audience. Many people still see us just as LIVE! in the Crossroads on First Fridays. That is the tip of the iceberg: we actually reach more than a million people annually,” Kennedy says.
That more-than-a-million figure might stun more than a few people. “We may be a small nonprofit organization, but that means we can be nimble and responsive. We are able to do special projects. One example is a community-based mural project that teams a muralist and a design team to express the highs and lows of the community,” Kennedy says. “We just completed one in East Waco and it was a wonderful experience that spoke to the revitalization of East Waco.”
This September, the ExhibitsUSA exhibition that goes up in the new display and work space called the Culture Lab is Our People, Our Land, Our Images. It’s a view of indigenous peoples through the eyes of indigenous photographers. The works will come from places such as Peru, Iraq, New Zealand and North America, and will be on display in the Culture Lab for eight weeks. The Culture Lab is open to the public every Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and on First Fridays. For the First Friday in September, Oklahoma’s Perpetual Motion Dance group will be in the parking lot, and October’s First Friday features Kansas City’s Blue Orleans band.
“We call it the Culture Lab because it is meant to be a place for experimentation. They are works in progress. While we now have the space to share the exhibitions before they go on the road, it’s also a benefit for us. We have never had a place to hang our own exhibitions and modify the educational components if needed. When we can base changes on viewer response, it is a laboratory for improvement and it’s where Kansas City gets to see what we do.” The Culture Lab is a climate-controlled environment and can be regulated much as a museum is, but Kennedy expects it to be another avenue, another access for individuals to have arts experiences. “A lot of people talk about access, but we really live it with our three-pronged approach. We want people to see a safe environment so if they don’t understand a piece of art, we have people here to make the experience richer and offer explanations.”
The next 12 years could usher in amazing growth if Kennedy has her say. “The goal in 12 years is to reach 3 million people a year. We aren’t an organization that rests on its laurels. The staff is strong and the building is a place for them to do their job well. We are constantly evolving too. What do the communities we serve want in programming and what do artists need to be successful? We have to transition programs to keep them relevant to what we do as a regional arts organization.”
Another current project includes the development of a film and media program. “Forty-one years ago, we were founded on the visual and performing art disciplines. We can keep these components, but we see the media arts as such a critical piece, especially with younger people. They want to participate and not just be the recipient of the arts so we have to determine how to manifest that … as the world is changing, so are we.”
Kennedy takes these goals personally. “I got started in the arts because someone else made them accessible to me. I was a kid who didn’t have access and someone reached out. Now I have had a career in the arts. And yes, we claim success on a regular basis. However, there is no end point to this. We are always looking at how to make the next arts experience even better. What keeps people engaged and engaged often does not come from a single-dimensioned organization.”
As part of performARTS, here is the story on KCPT. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGJHpaDZo8U&feature=youtu.be
It’s been around about 100 years, but in that time, jazz has morphed into various subgenres such as free jazz, Bebop, Afro-Cuban, avant-garde and of course, traditional. The subgenres are diverse, but no matter the style, the American Jazz Museum staff and leadership want to make sure that all jazz, from its earliest incarnations in the early 1900s to the music being produced in 2013, is treasured.
Chief Executive Officer Greg Carroll brings adoration for the jazz world each day he comes into work, takes his chair at an arts task force meeting or sharing the museum’s story. It’s a broad, gregarious passion that fills a room like Charlie Parker playing Summertime on his sax. He has been leading the American Jazz Museum for six years. “When I come into the room, just by my presence, I hope people think about the museum,” he says. “I want people to see the American Jazz Museum and the vision that we are a premiere destination.” The components of the museum include the Gem Theater and the Blue Room.
Carroll quotes the mission comfortably. It’s a mission to celebrate jazz through performance, education, exhibits and research. “We are working to be that significant stop in understanding jazz. The vision is to make the place extremely relevant and world class. We want to be a catalyst and connect people with jazz and those people are youngsters, young professionals and more … not just those 50 and older.” Marketing manager Chris Burnett says the museum was originally called the Kansas City Jazz Museum. “Considering the scope and the amount of materials on the Internet, I would daresay we are international,” he says.
Carroll brings the heart of an educator and the passion of a musician to his role as chief executive officer. “I wear three hearts. The middle heart is that musician who enjoys playing an instrument, sitting at the piano and playing or conducting a clinic for band students. That heart fuels the right heart which is the executive. This is the person who looks at the financial statements and moves the organization along. The heart on the left is the educator. I have learned so much through the educational lens. I am a different CEO because of that. I provide orientation and leadership, with an educator’s heart and that passion is always burning.”
His joy comes almost daily as he witnesses school groups sitting in the atrium, enjoying jazz storytelling; or, when he witnesses museum patrons who are seeing an exhibit or enjoying an artist and there are all smiles among them because there is such a love for the music. “When I see artists interacting on stage or I see patrons enjoying life and being enriched, it’s worth all the other stuff.” Another role is to be chief cheerleader. “I look for what is in the best interest of the American Jazz Museum. It is implicit in my job to be a community connector and that means to be in the community, not just in the neighborhood.”
The American Jazz Museum’s department of collections & exhibitions specializes in several areas, including: preserving and perpetuating the history of the 18th & Vine area, honoring jazz masters, digitizing its enormous collection of jazz on film, pursuing new acquisitions and artifacts for the permanent collections and presenting a variety of changing exhibits tied to the jazz experience and aesthetic. There are permanent collections and the Changing Gallery which gives space to local and national artists, traveling exhibits and more. Carroll continues, “In terms of exhibits, jazz is still young, and because of that, there are not as many exhibits, so we may have to self-curate and look for loaned artifacts too. We might even some day commission visual artists.”
Then there is the Blue Room, an award-winning jazz club featuring live music four nights a week, but also a part of the permanent exhibit at the American Jazz Museum. The Gem Theatre is the larger venue where the staff has brought such legends as Benny Golson, Chick Corea and Nancy Wilson. “Sure we would love to have Sonny Rollins. Then I would like to see more crossover artists like a Santana or a Bonnie Riatt. Then I would like find a platform for emerging artists. We are seeing schools graduating incredible talent and there are not many venues for these musicians to hone their craft,” Carroll says.
As the museum hits 16 years in existence, perseverance coupled with creative vision will be part of the American Jazz Museum’s future. “I try not to put all of my stock in quantitative measurements. A concert is not necessarily a failure if it doesn’t sell out. I want qualitative and that includes all facets such as presentation and enrichment. Sure back at the turn of the century, jazz was the popular music of the day and everyone went to dance or concert halls to see and hear the new music. It was the pop music of the day. However, today if a hall seats 500 and there are only 300 in attendance, that is not a failure. Jazz is now a niche; it is an acquired taste and not everyone is going to be a jazz lover or even a museum lover. However, we must be aware of our purpose to keep this very important art form alive and well,” Carroll says. “We are a small piece of a larger pie that includes educational programming at schools, jazz festivals, museums, cultural centers, faith-based organizations … all these aim to help keep jazz relevant.”
The other hope for the future is to work collaboratively with the groups in town that promote jazz such as Café Trio, Phoenix Grill, Take Five and Green Lady. “When some jazz venues are successful, others ultimately benefit and are successful. We have a cool opportunity to lift each other up. However, I am not sitting back and watching to see who comes, whether it’s patrons, artists, those who are helping behind the scenes, Kansas City’s historians … I want to see all the positive energy collaborating within the community at large and all of this fueled by the understanding that art makes us all better.”
Burnett says the American Jazz Museum staff will work even harder to share the message so that when people think of Kansas City, it’s barbecue, jazz and the American Jazz Museum. Carroll says the symbiotic relationship with the city is important too. “This is the city’s museum and we have to work even harder to share that statement.”•
May 9th edition
By Kellie Houx | Editor
Photos courtesy Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre
Community theater has a strong foothold at 115th and Nall in Johnson County. Tucked away behind the bluffs near the Sprint Center campus, the Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre and all the artistic opportunities that take the stage are sometimes overlooked. For Cultural Arts Director Krista Lang Blackwood, the need to be seen is part of her plans.
For eight seasons, the White Theatre has produced plays, musicals and at least one big summer musical annually. If the plays and musicals call for larger casts, it is rarely an issue to find actors and actresses. Finding an audience that will come to Johnson County from all over the metropolitan community is a little tougher.
“Our shows usually have some Jewish content or reflect a Jewish value. We have been able to increase direct Jewish content with our new visiting artists series, bringing in groups like The Maccabeats and Joshua Nelson’s Kosher gospel. In our community theater, establishing a Jewish connection is not too difficult because Jewish values are human values. Take a concept like tikkun olam, a Jewish value translated ‘repairing the world.’ It’s not just a Jewish value. It’s universal. You can always find Jewish values in theater productions that have nothing to do with Jewish culture. If I can make Jewish connections to Avenue Q, I can make Jewish connections to almost anything” Blackwood says.
In early April, the theater presented The Diary of Anne Frank. “I met with the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, which is also housed at the Jewish Community Campus, and their scholars expressed some trepidation. Turns out the play is stripped of many of the Jewish references one finds in the diary because of Otto Frank, Anne’s father. Mr. Frank has been quoted that he didn’t want it to be a ‘Jewish play.’ For Frank, the play’s mission was to generalize Anne’s experience so that it becomes an existential one, not a specifically historical one. For Holocaust scholars and educators, this is a problem. But it’s also a teaching moment for our audiences,” Blackwood says.
The final show of the 2012-2013 season is Hairspray. This year, Johnson County Theatre in the Park and the Jewish Community Center will co-produce the show. “It’s a new collaboration, an experiment. We share much of the same on-stage talent but we are also hoping to expand the community-at-large reach by putting »»
the musical up here and at the park.” The show runs July 13-28 at the Jewish Community Center and then at Theatre in the Park Aug. 2-4 and 8-10.
Hairspray examines the early 1960s and the concepts of social justice, integration and body images. “Audiences can be entertained. Other patrons like to dig deeper and we’ve begun to structure ways for them to do that, particularly with talk-backs after the shows. These interactive meetings usually grow through the run of a show. As an example, in February, we presented the musical Next to Normal. After each show, we hosted talk-backs with social workers, therapists, individuals living with mental illness and their families. Each subsequent performance drew more folks in to the theater and as the show ran, more and more stayed for the talk-backs. That’s theater operating at another, deeper level.” In programming a season, Blackwood says, “the trick is about creating balance and variety.”
The 2013-2014 season starts with Les Miserables 7:30 p.m., Nov. 9, 14, 16, 21, 23, 24 and 2 p.m., Nov. 10 and 17. The musical will again be directed by Mark Swezey the long-time director at the White Theatre. “We snapped the show up as soon as we could,” Blackwood says. “This is a huge show that we have been building towards for the past couple of years …” Other shows and guest artists include Paul Mesner Puppets presents Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, based on a book by Eric Kimmel in late November. Songwriter and public radio host Ben Sidran offers a discussion on his book, There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, Dec. 15. Tim Bair, the artistic director at Johnson County Theatre in the Park, will direct Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs in mid-January 2014. Director Barb Nichols and musical director Martha Risser take on Stephen Sondheim’s Company in February. Shane Bertram Baker presents his show The Big Bupkis! A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville March 9 and 10. Director Darren Sextro will work with community actors in To Kill a Mockingbird in April. Jewish rocker Rick Recht arrives April 27. Monty Python’s Spamlot, under the direction of Swezey, ends the season in July.
And if Blackwood could look into the future, she would want more people around the metropolitan area to find the White Theatre. “Our main goal is to create community through arts. I often get asked about what special rules people need to follow if they are seeing a show at the Jewish Community Center. ‘Do I need to wear a yarmulke or keep kosher?’ The answer? Our theater is no different than any other theater in town, in that aspect. Come as you are and enjoy the show. AND, as a bonus, parking is really easy.” Blackwood adds with a smile.
The 2014-2015 season will be the 10th Anniversary Season. It will be a combination of harkening back to then looking forward, Blackwood says. “Community theater is about building community through the arts. Think of all the families whose children are a part of our shows who become regular theatergoers because of it. It’s not just about entertaining, but we are creating a community of people who appreciate the arts.”•
Here is a video link to the Kansas City Ballet performARTS piece from the April 4th edition of THE LOCAL SHOW.
The Kansas City Ballet is all about balance. The dancers work at mastering leaps and steps as varied as Cabrioles and turns such as Pirouettes. Then they strike poses like arabesque. While the dancers work at perfecting their art, the administrative team encourages a similar move toward balance.
Executive Director Jeffrey J. Bentley joined the administrative team almost 15 years ago. During the early 1990s, the Kansas City Ballet, as a whole, faltered and was off balance, struggling, but through some resourceful steps through participation in the National Arts Stabilization Fund which identified arts organizations in communities with potential and promise and at the end of a five-year plan received a sizable grant, the organization turned around and today can tout a balanced and growing budget, Bentley says.
“Artistically dreaming is so critical. We could stagnate if we don’t move forward, but at this moment in time with this company and where we are in this community, we have had a remarkable trajectory in terms of growth and excellence in the recent few years,” Bentley says. “Sure, we have a strong budget, but we would always like to do more. If there was a donor or someone who asked how much is enough, I would tell this individual that you can always do more such as reach further into your community, reach further into the school, into the development of your students and the scholarship program; reach further into the company, coaching, the repertory; or into this building.” Bentley says money does not make great art, but with the right resources, great art can be produced. “And thus you have a thriving ballet company.”
Like the dreams of Clara in The Nutcracker and the sweet treats she experiences, Kansas City has given a taste of sweetness to the ballet in terms of support to repurpose the former power plant for Union Station. Before the move into the building near Union Station, the ballet used buildings that were acceptable practice buildings for the company and the students.
“We always knew they were temporary. We knew we needed a building to take us into the future. It would be the right space at the right time. However, it seemed like the most unlikely building, having been abandoned for 50 years with seemingly thousands of pigeons both alive and dead. It was dreadful, but the building has great bones. There was also this trinity of aesthetics: natural light, clear span space which means no pillars to dance around and a lot of height,” he says. “The pragmatic included an urban setting with substantial parking. We have students attending school year-round. Now we have probably one of the best centers in America and maybe the world.” The Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity has received at least 16 city, local, regional, national and international awards for its architectural repurposing, design work and more. “It’s a great legacy for all who have been involved.”
The Todd Bolender Center for Creativity & Dance has already been used for the Fringe Festival and First Fridays. “Kansas City is to be a destination for dance. We are not so arrogant to believe it’s only to be the Kansas City Ballet but dance in the community. The Fringe Festival was a perfect idea for the first year. We know that at the end of the day, we will look for more opportunities for the building,” Bentley says.
The other sweet treat came along in the form of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in September 2011, about a month after the ballet staff, dancers and students moved into the Todd Bolender Center. “We all embraced it with joy. The dancers and musicians have proper spaces. The dancers have dressing rooms and showers. The orchestra pit is appropriate, but more than anything, the audience has the amenities they need to enjoy a night out,” Bentley says. “For years, all of the ballet’s successes fell on the shoulders of the dancers because the previous theaters weren’t pleasurable venues. Now, the venue is a visual feast with the architecture and comfortable with the bars. Audiences can participate in the preshow lecture we do, go into the hall, sit in comfortable seats with great sight lines, hear a great orchestra and see fabulous dance.”
As for programming this fabulous dance, Bentley and Artistic Director William Whitener look for opportunities. The two men have worked together for almost 15 years here and two years at Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet. “We basically talk in a type of short-hand. I have a dance background myself so I can understand the repertory and the artistry. Of course, Bill has the final say on the season, but we can talk about budgets and so forth. The relationship we have has put the company into good standing. We have never diminished the artistry we put on the stage.”
In March, Whitener’s ballet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is based on William Shakespeare’s comedy about the romantic misadventures of two mortal couples and the king and queen of the fairies. Set to Mendelssohn’s score, Kansas City Ballet’s production features the full company of dancers, 11 students from Kansas City Ballet School, the women of the Kansas City Chorale and two actors who recite excerpts from the play. “It’s a story told with classical ballet. The characters come to life with our dancers. It’s a performance truly based on collaboration within our community.” The program also features the return of Toni Pimble’s Concerto Grosso, plus Jessica Lang’s pas de deux, Splendid Isolation III. All performed with music by the Kansas City Symphony.
Pimble, whose narrative ballet Carmina Burana opened the 55th season in the fall, came back during the late winter to work with the ballet for Concerto Grosso. “It’s new for the ballet company, but it’s an exquisite piece that is pure dance. The Ernest Bloch music needs to be played live and it seemed to tell me a story. Seven couples are on stage. While some of the music can be percussive and strident, it’s a joyous piece that offers fluidity for the dancers and constant interest for the audience.”
In May, African-American choreographer Donald McKayle presents Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City. The ballet also brings in Common People, choreographed by Margo Sappington and set to the words of actor William Shatner with music by Ben Folds, plus a world premiere by internationally acclaimed Karole Armitage. “We are showing off our diversity and range with great techniques and styles.”
Programming is a joy and a task he never takes lightly. “When I program a season, I look at the balance and the music. I look at the percentage of dramatic works to pure dance works. And of course it all happens because of the dancers. I look at works that suit them. We are in the business of developing dancers. We look at ways to fulfill their promise. It goes back to the way I was developed as a dancer with Bob Fosse and Twyla Tharp. I was nurtured for my individuality and my point of view. I attempt to carry that into my work wherever I go,” Whitener says.
For the 2013-2014 season, Jerome Robbins’ first ballet Fancy Free is part of the October show. Bentley says the show could not have been done in any other theater. “The scenery is huge, but now we don’t have the physical restrictions.” The October program includes Allegro Brillante by George Balanchine plus two premieres, Triply Play by William Whitener and a new ballet by Jodie Gates. Kansas City Symphony and piano soloists perform the music of Tchaikovsky, Poulenc and Bernstein. For almost the month of December, the audience favorite, The Nutcracker, takes the stage.
From Feb. 21 to March 2, 2014, the narrative ballet, Dracula by Michael Pink, will be introduced to Kansas City audiences. According to stories, audience members often dress in costume to attend the ballet. In early May 2014, The other narrative ballet, Cinderella, choreographed by Victoria Morgan, will be another family-friendly ballet, in a similar regard to The Nutcracker, with a familiar story of dreams fulfilled and true love.
“What we offer is a balance of programming between the repertory shows and the narrative or story ballets,” Bentley says. “The story ballets sell easier because they are more recognizable. Many of our subscribers have had their ears tuned to the work we do so they like the repertory too. The more you see the variety, the more you want. Sure, many come for the entertainment, but we want to grow the audience.”
Bentley says another dream is to add a fourth ballet to the mix, rather than three performances and The Nutcracker. “I would like to find another two weeks to do another show. We could have two programs of mixed repertory and two full length narratives plus The Nutcracker. We want it for many reasons: dancers want to perform and dancers become artists on stage especially with the more opportunities we give them. We know there are scheduling challenges within Kauffman because we share the space with the opera and the symphony. The center has its own series. We have been clear-headed and clear-eyed about growth. We wouldn’t be able to do this until the 2015-2016 season, if then but it’s a goal.”
The Kansas City Ballet is 56 years old as an organization. “We are the flagship dance company and we have the most reach. With this rich history and a bright future, we are engaged in arts, cultural and political issues. We learned about historic preservation. Without hesitation, we are leaders not only in the art world, but in the community and as a business. We have improved the fabric of the city and when cities want to be seen as leaders, they have to have professional arts companies, a coterie of professional theaters and modern dance. The city’s growth in the last 10 years with the Crossroads, the opening of the Bloch Building and the theater companies has been an incredible percolation. It’s great for our artists because artists thrive in a community with lots of creative forces.”
Here is the Unicorn Theatre story as part of the January 17th edition of THE LOCAL SHOW.
Artistic Director, Playwrights, Actors and More Unite for Distinctive Theater
In ancient folklore, the unicorn was often seen as a creature with the ability to bestow magical and medicinal properties. Here in Kansas City, the Unicorn Theatre may just be the place for a medicinal balm for the spirit and a magical journey that looks at a different place in contemporary culture.
For almost 40 seasons as a theater and nearly 35 under the watchful eye of producing artistic director Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn Theatre stays true to a mission to produce provocative and new plays. Levin seeks out living playwrights who can spend time in the theater, developing the production, and listening to their written words take shape. The ever-growing innovation of emerging and established actors, directors, playwrights, designers, technicians and administrative staff is another key component to the theater’s mission.
In 1974, three UMKC Theatre graduates rented an old warehouse in the historic River Market area and called it Theatre Workshop and produced the first show. In two years, the theater was creating a reputation of taking on world premieres and gaining grants. Ten years after the founding, the theater joined the Actors Equity Association, the national union for professional actors and stage managers. In 1986, the theater moved to its current location at 38th and Main.
“It’s difficult to take the time to look back because we are always moving forward,” Levin says. “Not a lot of theaters reach the age of 40, especially those of our size. I would say in the last 20 years, we have felt the strengths of this theater and it just keeps getting stronger. We have solidified our place in the community.”
Levin appreciates the longevity, but she also relishes the work that so many have done to nurture the Unicorn Theatre. “This theatre is my extended family. My entire adult life has been spent here and I treasure the people I get to work with. The commitment to concentrate our efforts on contemporary work is so critical and we must keep evolving or risk becoming stagnant.”
There’s no fear of stagnation at the Unicorn Theatre. Levin strives to find diversity in the voices she presents on the Mainstage or the Jerome Stage. “About 25 years ago when I was searching for plays by African-American women, which no one was doing, I found it was a difficult task due to what was being published. My goal has always been to seek out plays by those underserved voices and that includes race, gender and sexual orientation.”
The two most time consuming aspects of her job are searching for plays to fill a thought-provoking season and the hiring the actors, artists, directors and more. “I take great care with this,” she says. “If these two things are not successful, nothing else matters. These tasks are never done. I also help lead the business side, along with Managing Director Jason Kralicek. There are eight full-time staff and at least 125 artists that are hired during the season. During the day, it’s the business of fund-raising, marketing and more. In the evening, it’s about the stage and the stories.”
In more than three decades, the enthusiasm and energy of Levin flows to the staff and the actors. “In choosing the people, I am constantly learning and intentionally involved. We bring in specialists. If we are working on a play about death row, then we bring in people from the community who spent time on death row. It’s about doing the research. We are often the first in the Midwest to tackle certain subjects.”
Four more productions are up for the 2012-2013 season. In late January, the Unicorn will buzz with BlackTop Sky by playwright Christina Anderson, a native of Kansas City, Kan. Anderson attended Brown University and received her master’s in fine arts from Yale. “It’s another world premiere, our 57th” Levin says. “Christina also spent time with the young playwrights group at the Coterie. Ironically, as a professional playwright, she’s never been produced here. It’s exciting because she’s a young African-American female who shares a non-traditional story. There’s a sort of magical realism to her work. The dialogue has a poetic and hip hop quality. Three young people are at the intersection of their lives and they are asking questions that apply to any one regardless of race or class.”
Anderson is going to be a big deal, Levin says. “It’s the coolest thing to be at the forefront of new American theater. I am interested in what young playwrights have to say. We are often part of that playwriting process. There are many steps before a play hits a stage, probably 12 to 18 months before production begins. It takes time.”
David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People hits late February. Levin describes the play as another look at the struggles in certain neighborhoods. This time, the scene is set in south Boston where the working poor are trying to rise above their circumstance. “It’s funny and sweet and a wonderfully written play. So often, plays tell us how to think or feel but I love scripts like Good People that allow you to draw your own conclusions.” This play will be co-produced with Kansas City Actors Theatre.
Levin takes up the director’s role with My Name is Asher Lev, by Aaron Posner and adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok. “Again, we look at family and culture. This time, it’s an ultra-orthodox family and the idea of their son becoming a painter, which comes into conflict with their strong religious beliefs. Immigrant families often wanted their children to have a trade, not a hobby. The friction comes from culture and religion. Asher clearly needs to be a painter to become a whole person. Following one’s dreams and desires can be a tough road.”
The season ends with Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop in June. The main character is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The setting is the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, the night before his assassination and right after he gave his speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” which foreshadowed his death. “He is visited by a ‘cleaning woman’ who must prepare him for what is to come. We get to know a very human side of Dr. King. It is an incredible play.” says Levin.
Plays allow an audience to vicariously experience many of the values and characteristics of the people who populate the planet, Levin says. “People we may never get an opportunity to know and places we may never get to see. I look for plays that are relevant to our community and the times that we live in, plays with a social conscience. I want people to learn something in our theatre that they did not know before they walked in.”
Levin has to stay on top of the latest topics and trends. She examines the news and what issues will become part of theater. It might be warfare, AIDS, marriage, attention deficit disorder to name only a few. “I can’t rely on a catalogue of plays already published. I have to look at what is being written today. I know we will aim for those scripts in 12 to 18 months.”
As for the stages, Levin still thrills at the intimate theater spaces. “I can take an artistic risk with a theater that seats 150,” she says. “Those who are seeking something different find us. We may work on our own production or we seek out collaborations with other groups. Inspecting Carol in December was a co-production with us, the UMKC Theatre Department and the Kansas City Actors Theatre. It’s about making the most of our resources and maintaining great relationships with colleagues.”
“We work closely with the Coterie too. I will be down there in January, directing Number the Stars. Jeff Church (the Coterie’s artistic director) often directs here. I hope people in Kansas City know what they’ve got here. I’ve stayed in this city because of the incredibly committed support I have felt from the audience and funding community and the amazing number of talented artists. This is not only a great city to make a living as an artist but it has also become a great city to see art!”