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Cynthia Levin and Getting to Level 20: Thirty Years of The Unicorn Theatre - Tara Varney
Posted: Wed, Sep 24 2003, 9:19 PM

Cynthia Levin loves her job. "If I wasn't running the Unicorn, I'm not even sure what I would be doing. I mean, I couldn't even say, 'Well, I'd be working in the theatre somewhere.' I'm not even sure that's true," says the artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, from her chair in her purple office overlooking Main Street. "From the minute I remember being conscious of anything, I wanted to do something that could potentially change the world, that was meaningful to me every day of my life... It was amazing that I fell into the Unicorn, where I could pretty much do that."

The Unicorn Theatre, located at 3828 Main, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season. "Theatre Workshop," as it was originally called, was formed by three University of Missouri-Kansas City theatre graduates, Jim Cairns, Rohn Dennis, and Liz Gordon, in 1974. The early seasons included a little bit of nearly every genre, including children's theatre, original works, and classics by Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov. In 1979, when the company moved into the Norman Center, a "kid" named Cynthia Levin heard about a position available. "I went to the interview," Levin recalls, "and they said, 'So you can stage manage?' I said, 'Yes. Absolutely. Of course.'" She lowers her voice a fraction. "I never stage managed in my life." Her volume goes up again. "So they gave me the job." She has now been with the company for 25 years.

Theatre Workshop soon realized that the nebulous sound of its name was causing problems. "We would get phone calls ten times a week asking, 'What are you?'" remembers Levin. A name change was necessary, and it seemed logical to incorporate the symbol already utilized on Theatre Workshop letterhead: the unicorn.

In 1982, the artistic director of the Unicorn resigned, and Levin immediately applied for the job. "I had no business running a theatre company. All I had was passion and the energy to do it... And I just stepped right up, five minutes after she quit, and said, 'I'll do it.'... I just learned everything by saying 'I'll do it.' And I did it. And you learn that way. I would say 90% of what [you] want to learn, you can learn, if you just jump in and try it."

About that time, there appeared an obvious shift in programming. Whereas before Levin took the helm, there was a little bit of everything on the schedule, the early 80's saw a decided move toward contemporary theatre, with plays by David Mamet, Jane Martin, Lanford Wilson, and Sam Shepard. Levin explains that at that time, there were other up-and-coming companies in town, including the Coterie, which excelled at children's theatre, and Missouri Repertory Theatre, which focused more on classics. Everybody was finding their own identity, "so I thought our logical niche was contemporary, adult-themed theatre and original scripts."

Other big turning points in the history of the Unicorn included the joining of Actors' Equity Association in 1984. Then, in 1986, the current theatre location in mid-town was secured. Originally an old garage, the building was transformed into a 150-seat theatre with a thrust stage. Six years ago, the Main Street lobby was opened, which offers much more visibility.

The first fifteen years or so were spent "clawing and scratching," Levin says, but "definitely that's turned around in the last ten years." As with many businesses, particularly those that are art-based, there have been many financial concerns. When the going gets tough for theatres, the easy road is to go commercial. "And we never did it. So sort of holding onto those ideals and the grassroots mission of the company actually made it successful," she asserts.

Some of the financial obstacles that the Unicorn has had to overcome include cutbacks from the National Endowment for the Arts and scraping up corporate sponsorship. Although no corporate sponsor has ever pulled financial backing as a protest, there have been times when potential sponsors have tried to use their money as a bargaining chip for input on the material to be presented onstage. Levin says that sort of a partnership has never been enticing. "Not to me. Ever. I fought it, for many, many years. And I can understand the fear of the board. For many years, you know, it was sometimes going into a meeting and saying, 'Over my dead body'... 75% of the time we took the risk, it paid off."

For instance, 1992 was a particularly difficult year. There were various financial setbacks, and at the end of the season, the company was slated to produce a then-unknown play called Falsettoland. The board of the Unicorn Theatre suggested that it was too big and too expensive, and moved for a change of plans. "That was one of those over-my-dead-body times," maintains Levin. "I said, 'We're going to do this show. We're going to figure out how to do it.'"

Miracles sometimes happen, apparently. The board relented, the play stayed on the schedule, and the unknown New York City production moved to Broadway. Opening week of the Unicorn's production also saw the Broadway production win the Tony Award. "I mean, the timing was insane," says Levin. Falsettoland sold out at the Unicorn for two full months, causing all debt to be completely erased. Levin explains the effect the experience had on her: "If I wasn't confident before that time of 'Go with your heart, follow your heart, do what you need to do,' or, you know, go down with the ship, that taught me such a valuable lesson."

As for programming, Levin's template is her own taste. "I don't choose what I do by what I think someone else wants to see. I choose what I do by pretty much what I want to see, and there's a whole bunch of other people that agree, and want to see that." As a result, the theatre has become known for doing edgier, issue-oriented plays. "Luckily, we're not the only theatre in town," she says. "Luckily, if you want to see musical comedy, great. Or Shakespeare. Or children's theatre. I don't have to fulfill that for the entire community."

"Community" is a concept that comes up repeatedly for Levin. Unicorn Theatre has always been committed to hiring local artists, for that very reason. "You do not create a community or loyalty by having a new friend every six weeks," she contends. "Especially in this kind of theatre, when we're putting, sometimes, your naked ass out there, much less your psychological, emotional and intellectual ass out there - to be surrounded by people, by people who live in your neighborhood, by people you have worked with before, where you start from Level 10 in a relationship, and work up to Level 20 by the time you're through, as opposed to constantly starting at Level Zero."

"I think it's important to try to employ as many local artisans as humanly possible," she goes on to say. "And there's no reason not to. I mean, it's not like there's nobody here who can do it. That's just not true. And if people are given just a little more opportunity, then they get to learn how to do it, and they get better at it. And I don't know why we can't be a part of that. I love being a part of that."

Traditionally, there has also been a sense of community among all the artistic directors of Kansas City theatres, Levin says. At least, until recently. "We all like each other, we all get along, which is fabulous. Everybody can call each other and go, 'Okay, we need this, we need that,' and that's great. Good relationships," she states confidently, but then her tone changes slightly. "Not so much with the Rep anymore."

Historically, when donations of furniture, costumes, and the like were made to the Unicorn and other local theatres, those items have been given to Missouri Rep, as they had far more storage space than any other theater in town. In return, the smaller theatres were allowed to borrow anything from the Rep's stock. "They obviously had the resources to share," Levin says. "They were the big guys in town, and they doled it out and helped... And that's been stopped. It has been stopped." The Rep apparently claimed that the arrangement was "too expensive" and used too many personnel, a claim that Levin finds unlikely. "Of course it's important to keep your eye on the bottom line, but I don't want to ever have to get to the place where that is the reason [I] make decisions, that every reason is a financial decision. There are other reasons to be in this business." She says that when "we all just got severed a few years ago" by the Rep, many local theatres felt the sudden blow and found it difficult to figure out "a whole different way of doing things."

Levin's favorite part of her job is working with a production team, and that includes those times when research by the cast and designers is supplemented by bringing in people who can relate firsthand to the issues being presented onstage. For Proof, that meant bringing in doctors and discussing mental illness. For How I Learned to Drive, they spoke with incest survivors. "You've got to go some places that are bleak and dark and uncomfortable, and it's incredible... I think, in the theatre, there are no limits. There are no walls. There are no subjects that are taboo. There are no subjects at the Unicorn that are taboo, if I find them valid, if I find them moving." And you certainly won't find escapist comedies here. "I don't much believe in happy endings," she explains. "I don't much believe in Hollywood."

As every artist knows, sometimes the product just doesn't live up to expectations. "Every disappointment is tough, and every opening night is nerve-wracking, and that doesn't change," Levin says. When dissatisfaction and frustration occur, Levin advises that "you just have to take care of yourself" in your own way, by taking a vacation, or having dinner with friends, or "spending an evening with the dogs," perhaps her personal favorite choice, as the ever-present canine population at the theatre might attest. "All I ever allow myself is three days of heartbreak, or three days of celebration. And then you move on," she says simply.

Although she usually spends around ten to twelve hours a day at the theatre, six days a week, Levin doesn't mind. "That's what I've chosen," she asserts. "Obviously nobody tells me what to do. I tell myself, and I've chosen to work most of the time. But I love it. I do love it... The Unicorn's been good to me. It's a good place to evolve."

The Unicorn's next production is Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith, about racism within the African-American community. It runs October 15 through November 9. Call (816) 531-PLAY or go to www.unicorntheatre.org for information.

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