Conversation with Cynthia Levin, Producing Artistic Director for the Unicorn

Q. Cynthia, does everything else going on-- the new Performing Arts Center, the new HR Block theatre, make it more of a challenge to run a capital campaign.”
A.“Absolutely. People are really stretched to make decisions on who to give money to. What we have found is most people are being incredibly generous, but they’re giving less money to more people rather than huge donations to one or two organizations. It means we have to find more donors to give at a smaller level.
If we were planning this the way most people plan capital campaigns, we would have started with a five-year goal. But the opportunity to get the space to expand into came up two years ago and we had to start right away.”

Q. Did you ever think about just moving to a new space?
A. About three years ago I started thinking that we needed to expand. I started looking in the Crossroads, and the new Cordish entertainment section downtown. But moving is a very difficult thing for an organization. People get used to where you are . . . And we’ve been around 32 years and 30 years of that has been in the midtown area. I live in midtown, most of our constituency and staff live in midtown and we don’t want to flee because then, what’s going to happen to midtown? The type of theatre we do just belongs in central city.

Q. What was limiting about the space you had?
A. We just wanted more space. We needed a lot of office space, rehearsal space, classroom space now that we’re teaching. We wanted to have another stage where we could develop more new work, and work with playwrights and smaller productions and do coproductions with other companies that do not have space.
We’ve been talking with Late Night Theatre, Musical Heritage Theater, and some other companies—any group we share an artistic philosophy with. Groups that are trying to do things differently, doing new work. Maybe we can have people rehearsing in there during the day and performing at night. If we can generate more revenue from earned income to match what we ask other people to give us, it will benefit us in the long run.

Q. June 2007 is the target date for the capital campaign. Will the theatre be completed before then or is that reliant on the money you’re raising?
A. We’re only spending what we bring in. We’re not going to just borrow the money and hope. To work in a very responsible manner does slow us down. The hope is by June we will have the new space ready, and then maybe two years later shut down the existing theatre for a few months and renovate it while we perform in the new space.

Q. Is parking an issue?
A. We have several lots available within a block of the theatre. The problem is communicating with our patrons where the parking is so people won’t drive around, see one parking lot full, and think there is no parking.

Q. Were there any productions you felt you could not get because of any limitations like, say, the stage being too small?
A. Not really. There are always going to be shows that we are incapable of doing because of the cast size. We continually find new ways of trying to produce a show in a smaller, maybe more imaginative or clever venue than you would necessarily see in New York where you need more stage space. But we don’t want to spend the small amount of money we have on costumes and the finite things that you use once and throw away. I’d much rather spend it on salaries and people. The incredible designers and others I work with find clever, fun ways of doing things that don’t necessarily mean spending more money. We’re never going to have $100,000 to put on a show, nor do I even want that. It’s a different way of looking at art. It’s about worth, character, people. It’s more like reading, where you leave a little bit up to the imagination of the spectator.

Q. When do you start looking at your productions for 2008-2009?
A. Right now. I am in the middle of it. I go to New York about three times a year and see shows and meet with people. We also get in about 500 submissions of new plays and I read every publication I can get my hands on. And I have people that also travel and read in search of shows that might benefit the Unicorn. Most of the shows we do are not even published, so I have to be able to see productions that are new or talk to people or agents who send me manuscripts. The Unicorn is committed to doing things that maybe have a different sensibility.

Q. The one that seems like it didn’t go with that philosophy was Crowns.
A. Yes. The commitment I made ten years ago was to try and find shows by and about African American women. Nobody else was doing that. Not anywhere near us. The only African American show that was in Kansas City was August Wilson. No one was exploring the female African American culture. Why didn’t the Rep do Crowns? We had to do it.
The diversity part may not always fall into the provocative, controversial sort of subject matter. But the mere fact that it is a black and white cast, a mixed cast, a different culture, a different race, or even gender. Those things are also very important. There are actually four or five different areas and different kinds of stories I’m looking for. Crowns was amazing for what it was and what it did and what it showed white people.

Q.. We all remember when you brought in Hedwig.
A. The strong elements that I look for is something that is controversial, some thing that is about diversity or gender and homosexuality. Nobody else necessarily is looking for specific subject matter to put on stage, and I am. I don’t censor myself; I don’t censor the plays we do. If they are important, then who cares if it’s two men or two women or black and white?

Q. Are you an actor?
A. I started as an actor in school and got into acting and directing. When I started at the Unicorn, sometimes I would act in a show, sometimes I would direct, sometimes I would stage manage and for 10 years I designed all the music and sound. The last show I performed in was Falsettoland and that was about 12 years ago.

Q. Has your background always been in Kansas City?
A. I’m from Washington, D.C. I came out here to go to school at Park University. When I got out of school I worked for a little time at the Rep and then got this job. It was the main reason I stayed in Kansas City. I was packing my bags and there was nothing like the Unicorn and there still isn’t anything like the Unicorn. So as long as this can be as energizing as it is, it’s different work for me every day of the week.

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