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Cynthia Levin

Alyssa Cartwright as Sabra and Michael Stock as Abe in the Unicorn Theatre's professional World Premiere production of HOW HIS BRIDE CAME TO ABRAHAM by Karen Sunde, January 21 - February 15, 2004

Alyssa Cartwright and Michael Stock

Alyssa Cartwright and Michael Stock

The Unicorn Theatre

Photos by Cynthia Levin and courtesy of Unicorn Theatre

March 17, 2004

Kansas City’s Unicorn Celebrates 30 years of Cutting Edge Theatre!

By Peter Royston

How the Unicorn Got Its Name is an interesting tale – not the unicorn of myth and legend (although that mystical creature does play a part in the story), but the Unicorn Theatre, Kansas City’s premiere theatrical space for new and provocative plays and musicals, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Founded in 1974 as the Theatre Workshop by three graduates of the University of Missouri - Kansas City theatre program, the company almost immediately gained a feisty reputation for presenting innovative work. Speaking of the converted warehouse that was the troupe’s first home, Kansas City Star drama critic Giles Fowler said, "There is something about the place -something about the spirit and guts - that makes you want to see it thrive."

By the early 1980s, the company was searching for a new name to mirror its cutting edge character. Someone had donated letterhead to the theatre that happened to have a unicorn printed on top, and rather than waste the stationery, the company members decided to adopt this unique and fearless animal as its namesake. This mixture of frugality and courage marks the Unicorn’s temperament. “We have been VERY careful financially,” says Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s Artistic Director, “We don't spend the money if we don't have it and I think that is why we have lasted this long on a shoe string. ALL the risk is on the stage. The important part is the production. We put our money where it is most effective - not into costumes and scenery, but into people.”

For Levin, the Unicorn’s priorities are clear; its goal is “to bring people something new, or presented in a way that might move them to see things differently. Whether it's gay marriage, inter-racial relationships or the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, I look for stories and characters that are not being fairly represented elsewhere.“

After the name change in 1981, the theatre began to shift into high gear. The Unicorn became an Equity theatre in 1984, and then two years later moved to its current location – a midtown garage transformed into an intimate theatre space with a thrust stage and a seating capacity of 152.

1981 also saw the theatre gaining extra funding to stage original plays. Nearly every season since has seen at least one world premiere. These have included: Doin’ the Reality Rag (1987) by Lawrence Perkins, a play starring five physically challenged actors, Mark Houston's Expiring Minds Want to Know, Or Six Women with Brain Death (1986), which won for Best Original Script at the Kansas City Theatre Awards, David Barr's Betrayal of the Black Jesus (1995), and last year’s affectionate bio-play about Lucille Ball, Loving Lucy by Philip "blue owl" Hooser.

Levin seems to thrive on the mixture of danger and dialogue that marks the best theatre; the Unicorn’s most recent premiere was the professional debut of How His Bride Came to Abraham, by Karen Sunde, a bold and politically electric play about a man and a woman coming together in the emotional no man’s land between Israelis and Palestinians.

Levin credits Actors’ Equity with helping the Unicorn to survive. “I would not stay on as the Artistic Director if (the Unicorn) were not an Equity company,” she says, “We joined AEA when the SPT contract was first introduced twenty years ago. We could not have done it any other way. I have always had a great relationship with our Chicago Rep. I have always dealt with them honestly and they have always dealt with me fairly. Being a member of Equity myself, I fought for the Unicorn to become an Equity house and believe very strongly in what the union stands for.” Over the past 12 years, the Unicorn Theatre has employed 379 Actors and Stage Managers and provided 1,760 workweeks to Equity members.

For Walter Coppage, who has acted in such Unicorn productions as Flyin’ West by Pearl Cleage, How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel, and most recently, Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith, working with a company that produces so many premieres offers unique opportunities: “Premieres allow the actors to work directly with the playwright,” he says, “It’s a really collaborative process. This way you’re really getting into the head of the playwright, what they really want as opposed to your speculation or the director’s interpretation.”

“What’s exciting for me as an African American actor,” comments Coppage, ”is Cynthia’s commitment to doing plays by minorities, as well as the wonderful job she does casting whoever she feels is the best actor for the part, regardless of the color of their skin. It’s wonderful to be offered these parts that you wouldn’t expect, like in How I Learned to Drive, to play Uncle Peck, with an all-white family and there’s me! It’s a huge risk on their part, but it works well.”

As for the future, Levin is committed to growth, but not at the expense of her staff and artists. “We will need to expand our facility eventually,” she says, “We seat 152, with added side seating we can seat up to 175 and half the time, that is not enough. But, I do not want to stretch our resources into a capital campaign until state and federal funding is restored and we can increase salaries.” For now, the Unicorn will continue to do what it does best: surprise and nourish its audiences. Levin reflects, “One of the things I love to hear from people in the lobby when they come to a Unicorn show is that they don't know what they're getting into. BUT, that they “trust” us. They TRUST that it will be good. Interesting. Well done. I truly believe that Kansas City wants and needs the Unicorn. There is nothing else like it in Kansas City.”

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