A Talk With The Unicorn Theatre's Cynthia Levin

Cynthia Levin zooms up to the side door of the Unicorn Theatre, a one-story brick building whose main entrance bravely faces the dizzy chaos of Main Street. She disembarks her scooter, smoothes her short crop of tightly curled hair, and steps inside her sanctuary.

If the Unicorn Theatre were a scooter, Levin would be its sparkplug. This September will mark the beginning of Levin’s 33rd season as the Unicorn’s Producing Artistic Director, a title that reflects Levin’s dynamic command.

The Unicorn’s full-time staff determines the theater’s budget, crafts its marketing plan, dreams up fundraisers and handles the box office. But when it comes to choosing the works that will define the Unicorn’s season, Cynthia Levin runs the show.

“The choice of the shows and the actors and the artists, that is my decision,” Levin says. “I think that it has to be someone’s vision. That cannot happen by committee, or else it sort of becomes this little nothing. It becomes vanilla ice cream.”

Levin’s mission at the Unicorn is to stage bold, new plays. But that’s not as simple as it may sound. Scoring the rights to mount a brand-new piece of theater requires the willingness to throw one’s weight around.

Immediately after a play has debuted on Broadway, claimed its Tony Awards, and closed, producers and artistic directors from all over the country descend on New York to jockey for rights. The process can be maddeningly political, but for Levin, that’s life.

 “Usually, what’s happened is, we are the first theater that has received the rights to do the play after New York,” Levin says. “I’m usually in there, kicking and screaming. But it’s really cool, because as soon as I hear something or see something or know I want to do it, I’ll start fighting for the rights. I just cultivated these relationships.

“And sometimes I’m given the rights, and then a day later it’s taken away,” Levin continues. “I mean, it’s a really crazy game, but I would say most of what I do is find plays and then fight to do them, because in the world of new plays, it’s up for grabs.”

Kansas City’s theatrical universe, from the 1960s forward, was shaped by powerful female forces. When she moved to town, Levin was blissfully unaware, that this is the exception to the rule. She was used to seeing women-run theater operations, having come from Washington D.C., where Zelda Fichandler loomed large as the longtime artistic director of D.C.’s Arena Stage theater.

“I come here to Kansas City, and who is running the big theater in town in the ’70s and ’80s? Patricia McIlrath. She started the Rep [Kansas City Repertory Theatre] and was running the Rep, and it’s like, that’s who I saw. Little did I know that that was so rare.”
In the highest echelons of theater — we’re talking Broadway — the “good old boy’s club” remains staunchly intact. “It’s down to four percent of women working,” Levin says. “I mean, that’s insane, when the culture of it is that everybody’s so liberal and everybody’s so open. And it’s not on the business side.”

On the local level, women fare better. There are female managing directors at the Coterie, the American Heartland, and the Kansas City Rep, Levin says. “In the smaller, regional theaters, [the number of women working] is not half by any means, but it’s almost respectable, like 35 percent.”

But, she points out, “These are all small organizations. They’re not multi-million dollar productions like on Broadway, and that’s where I really see it leak backward. The more money spent on a production, the fewer the women that are running the business.”

Women have traditionally carved other niches in theater. Stage management is one. “You see an enormous number of women in that role,” Levin says. “I truly believe it’s because it’s somewhat subordinate and women have organization and communication skills — a lot of skills that are inherent with women — but also because almost every other role in the theater was given to men, and it’s where women found work.”

But taking a backseat was never Levin’s style. She came to the theater world from the activist anti-Vietnam movement and women’s movement of the 1970s.

“I wanted to deal with contemporary issues and women in theater,” Levin says, “I was not able to be a stage manager, or barely an actor, because I always said, ‘I need control of this whole product.’ Some people love it because they don’t want to be responsible for 10 things. And I love taking responsibility for 10 things.”

Levin infused the Unicorn with her progressive, barrier-busting spirit, which shone through the work she chose to produce and direct.

At the time that Levin took the helm of the Unicorn, she says, you didn’t see many plays about African Americans, much less about African American women. There were no roles for homosexuals, except in comedic, stereotypical effect. And the mothers, sisters and daughters were either beautiful, vacuous ingénues or the victims of (often sexual) violence.

It follows that plays about white, male protagonists are the standard when white males write all the plays – the ones getting the financial backing, at least. The absence of other points of view being displayed onstage to the mainstream is what Levin is rioting against at the Unicorn.

“That hurts me, so I make that effort,” Levin says.

Audiences don’t always get it, which makes some sense when one considers how different Levin’s goals are from those of the bigwigs at TV networks and in Hollywood. We, the entertainment-seeking public, are creatures of habit. We sometimes react to more intellectually challenging material like a kid being forced to eat his vegetables. And Levin’s season ticket-holders tend to be mainstream America: middle-aged, middle- to upper-middle-class white folks.

“They say, ‘Oh God, all your plays are about young people,”’ Levin says, with a good-natured laugh. “Or, ‘Why do you do so many African American plays?’ ‘Why do you do so many gay plays’, you know, or ‘so many naked plays’ – of which we’ve done, like, six out of 280.”

Staging material that takes risks is what she and the Unicorn are known for, because nobody else does it. But Levin won’t put on shock for shock’s sake.

“I feel like I have to live with these plays,” she says. “I have to live with them for a year. I have to believe in them, that there’s some reason that I want people to see it and believe in it. And if I feel like it has heart and other people will believe in that, too — if I don’t feel that, I ain’t gonna do it. I have to look at all of our subscriber’s faces and tell them they’re going to love what they’re going to see. I have to believe it or I can’t live with myself.”

Levin remembers days when, if she decided not to get out of bed, nothing was going to get done. “Before, yeah, I can think of the years of not only helping build the set and direct the show but also clean the bathrooms and vacuum, you know. Now we have a bigger staff, and a great staff. I have so much more help now than I ever did, and that’s kind of huge.”

Doing revolutionary theater in a bad economy takes courage. “It was sort of like this for awhile in the early ’90s,” Levin says. “But before, we were so much smaller that, you know, you needed so much less.”

And after 33 seasons, she says, she’s never put on a dud.

“It’s not like a joke or something,” Levin says. “It’s not like I can’t admit it. I absolutely never feel like we have ever failed. I feel like I’ve had 250 children, and so, to some extent, some have been better successes than others.”

Sparkplugs don’t last forever. But this one still has plenty of miles ahead.
“It’s never like, ‘God, how can you do the same thing year after year,’” she says. “It changes all the time. The thing I try to say each season is, ‘OK, what haven’t we done? What can we accomplish that people are gonna walk in and go, Oh my God, I’ve never seen this before?’ We get to look at everything as new, over and over again.”


In my opinion, we should go more often to the theatre and opera, because we need culture. Some of us will tell that it's a waste of money, but I'm really sure that there are other ways to save money, and not by giving up on our culture.

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