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!”