Crafting Theater: Behind the Scenes of The Unicorn Theatre

Cynthia Levin, executive director of the Unicorn Theatre, has worked behind-the-scenes to bring unique theater content to Kansas City for decades.
Cynthia Levin

Cynthia Levin is the Unicorn Theatre. For 39 seasons, she’s been the powerhouse behind thought-provoking plays that highlight social and diversity issues. Last year, Levin was granted the prestigious Actor’s Equity Association Kathryn V. Lamkey Award, which was presented by the association’s Equal Employment Opportunity Committee. She’s also helped bridge the gap between the Midwest and New York City by nurturing new playwrights while mentoring and influencing emerging artists.

Levin has been with the Unicorn Theatre almost since its inception. The theater company was begun by three UMKC graduate students who wanted to continue their vision — and who needed jobs. Their first location was in the Rivermarket and in 1979 they began renting classrooms at Norman Elementary School in the Valentine neighborhood, but the rooms were limited in size, with a maximum seating capacity of 75, and there was no air conditioning.

Levin joined the company in 1979 as a stage manager, director, actor and sound designer. “We really did a bit of everything: new plays, Shakespeare, children’s plays,” she says. “We called ourselves the ‘Theatre Workshop,’ but it confused audiences since we weren’t in a theater and there were no workshops.”

They eventually changed their name to the Unicorn Theatre, naming it after their unicorn mascot. Three years later, the former artistic director “quit in a dramatic way and walked out,” Levin says. This opened the door for Levin to take artistic control.

One of her first goals was for the company to join the professional actor’s union and sign a Small Professional Theatre contract. Another goal was to expand the Unicorn’s location.

In 1986, the Unicorn rented the back half of its current Midtown building at 36th and Main streets. Without a front door or street access, audiences entered through the back alley. When the Main Street-facing building came available to rent, Levin says, “I grabbed it because we wanted to have another stage so we’d be able to rehearse in one and perform in the other.”

Unicorn Theater

It took three years to renovate the space. “I never had the work done unless we had the cash,” Levin says. “We never borrowed money.” Later in 2013, Levin raised $1 million in seven months so she could own the building. The Unicorn is the only KC theater to own its building, Levin proudly states.

With more space, the Unicorn now partners with UMKC’s theater department, appointing interns as actors, designers, backstage assistance and even playwrights. Levin has always been serious about training the next generation of artists and curating new material. She co-founded and is a board member of the National New Play Network, where playwrights can enter their work into a database to increase the play’s chances of being produced and earn the playwrights more exposure. The organization also acts as a conduit to help network theaters with new plays and playwrights. Plus, if the smaller theater productions are successful, they can be connected with larger New York theatrical producers.

Levin’s dedication to new and groundbreaking shows is shown in the Unicorn’s wide range of theater productions. In the 340 plays the Unicorn has produced, 68 of them were world premieres. The criteria for their play selection is that the work must be high quality, socially relevant, thought-provoking and diverse, and it must never have been locally produced.

For Levin, theater is all about telling stories that not only entertain but also make people think or feel something new. As the Unicorn settles into its fourth decade, the mission of “bold new plays” continues to flourish, as does the success of the theater Levin helped craft into a national player.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre