At Unicorn, A Show Will Go On

Above: Unicorn Theatre (photo by Cynthia Levin)

Damron Armstrong Will Direct a Virtual Production of “Kill Move Paradise” by James Ijames

Cynthia Levin, the longtime artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, couldn’t stand the idea of a dark theater building with no audiences, no working actors, no opening nights.

But that became the summer reality for the Unicorn and other Equity theater companies.

Levin said that after suspending operations in May, as ordered by Mayor Quinton Lucas in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she began looking at what a long dormant period for the Unicorn might mean for the theater company’s future.

“Who would have ever thought five months later we would still be dealing with this?” Levin said in July. “And we’ll probably be dealing with it the next five years.”

But live shows at Equity theaters aren’t happening unless Actors Equity Association, the union for actors and stage managers, says it’s OK.

“We have implemented so many of the safety measures that have come out through the (Kansas City) Health Department, the CDC (the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the union,” Levin said. “But one of the union rules is that you can’t stage a show until (infection rate) numbers in your area are going down. Well, that’s not happening.”

In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, Equity retained Dr. David Michaels, former head of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in the Obama Administration, as a consultant. Michaels and the union came up with a set of guidelines and standards theaters have to meet before they can reopen. At the top of the list: The “epidemic must be under control, with effective testing, few new cases in the area and contact tracing.”

Over the summer, the number of new cases nationwide was surging, according to the CDC. By early September, Missouri had recorded 90,241 cases (an increase of 1,321) and 1,680 deaths
(an increase of 11). Cases in Kansas had risen to 14,755 and deaths to 475.

Bottom line: Equity theaters probably won’t be allowed to reopen until the numbers start going down.

In June, the Unicorn began “Quarantine Confessions,” a series of videos showing actors and playwrights performing monologues related to the stir-craziness that comes with a lockdown. The first four featured the work of Ron Simonian, Ron Megee, Manon Halliburton, Shon Ruffin and Em Swenson.

The monologues were a small step in the right direction, Levin said, “so at least there’s a way to get half a dozen artists paid something.”

But then came Levin’s lightning bolt of inspiration. Why not do a real play, with real Equity actors, that can be enjoyed by the public without exposing theatergoers to the coronavirus? The show she initially settled on was “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which originally was scheduled for a live run in April and May. The show was to have been directed by the Unicorn’s Ian R. Crawford.

But with only three actors, Levin began contemplating a different possibility. What if a performance could be filmed with a three-camera set-up on the Unicorn stage and made available to the theater’s subscribers as well as the general public for streaming?

It was an unorthodox idea. But she talked Equity into it. So the plan was to rehearse the cast — Mark Robbins, Peggy Friesen and Phil Newman — via Zoom from remote locations, probably in mid-to-late August, shoot the performance, edit the footage and make it available for streaming three weeks or more in September.

“I was thinking of ways to do a Zoom production,” Levin said. “A few people have done that. But what is it besides the reading of a play?”

At the end of the rehearsal period, Levin said actors and everyone involved in the production would be tested for COVID-19. The performance will be shot over three days. The sets and costumes were already built in anticipation of a spring production.

“We’re just gonna do a lot of preparation,” Levin said. “The goal is to not have the actors in the building more than three days.”

The actors and stage managers, Levin said, would get full salary and benefits.

But then everything changed.

“We can’t bring any actors in even for two days to shoot video on set — (Actors Equity) won’t let anything happen until our numbers go down,” Levin said.

So, the original idea was dropped. Levin pivoted to a different play altogether: “Kill Move Paradise” by James Ijames, a young African American playwright/actor whose work has been produced across the country.

According to Ijames’ website the play is set in a netherworld where four “newly deceased” young men — Isa, Daz Grif and Tiny — “try to make sense of the world they have been ‘untimely ripped’ from and this new paradise they find themselves in.” Inspired by recent events, the play is an “expressionist buzz saw through the contemporary myth that ‘all lives matter’ as well as a ‘portrait of the slain, not as degenerates who deserved death but as heroes who demand that we see them for the splendid things they are.’”

Directing will be Damron Armstrong, founder of the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City. The cast includes Darrington Clark, Rakeem Lawrence, Donovan Woods and SaVaughn McClaine.

“We will record it as a virtual production all online,” Levin said. “The actors will be in front of a ‘green screen’ at home, and we will fill in the setting behind them digitally. Much like a movie!”

If all goes according to plan, the show will begin streaming September 30.

It won’t be the show Levin originally planned to present before a live audience in the spring and later hoped to offer as a streaming video production after live theater became an impossibility. But it is a show — and one that appears to have up-to-the-minute relevance.

“I was pretty sure it was going to be summer, then I was pretty sure it was going to be September and now I’m not sure about anything,” she said. “Most theater companies are planning for either the first of the year or nothing until next summer.”

The Unicorn received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $112,000 from the Small Business Administration and a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Levin said other local foundations as well as Theater League have also offered financial support. Some of the money went toward retrofitting the Unicorn’s HVAC units with MERV 13 filters and ultraviolet lights, which are believed to prevent the indoor spread of the virus.

So even though the Unicorn has been dark since May, there’s been plenty of activity outside the public’s view.

“I refuse to do nothing,” Levin said.

For more information on the Unicorn Theatre, and to watch the “Quarantine Confessions” videos, go to www.unicorntheatre.org.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

Leave a Reply