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Naughty-Word Alert: The Unicorn's Cynthia Levin On Problematic Play Names

Unicorn Theatre

Bad Jews, which opened this week at the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., is a comedy.

Still, some potential funders weren’t amused. Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s producing artistic director, says some philanthropic organizations that have sponsored the Unicorn’s shows declined this time because of the show’s title.

“I understand that,” Levin says. Arts philanthropy is a competitive arena with intensely interested boards of directors, so the name of a production can sometimes work in the Unicorn’s favor – or not.

With another provocatively named production, Mike Bartlett’s Cock, scheduled for this spring, Levin spoke with KCUR about naming conventions.

When funders declined to sponsor Bad Jews, what were their complaints?

I’m not sure I would categorize it as complaints. It’s fascinating to me how playwrights come up with names for their plays: Is it descriptive of the play, is it pulling out a line from the play or the words characters speak? And boy, do I hope they realize how important the name of the play is. If you don’t know what the show is about, the title is all you have to help you decide: Does this sound interesting? Do I want to order tickets? (Bad Jews playwright) Joshua Harmon was very specific in wanting this title for his play. He wanted it to be provocative. But the connotations are that it’s a play about Jews who are bad, that it’s about the Israeli-Palestine war — there’s enough in the media about anti-Semitism and plays that don’t show Jewish people in a good light.

I hate when a title might turn people off if you’re not potentially open-minded. We did a play (in 2013) called Seminar. I love one-word titles, but Seminar was a bit of a turnoff because people thought it was going to be a lecture.

What do you tell people who have a problem with Bad Jews' title?

The play is about how you have these cousins who are fighting over a family heirloom when their grandfather dies. So the argument becomes about entitlement: Well, I’m a better Jew, I’m a better person, I’m entitled to this gift because I’m moving to Israel and I keep kosher and follow Jewish law to the letter. The question is, what is faith, what is culture, what is religion, what makes “who is better”? To me, being a good Jew is being a good person, being a kind, generous, forgiving person. Well, to somebody else it means, “I go to the synagogue every week and I bring my children up Jewish and I follow the rules.”

And, of course, any great well-written family drama has tons of humor because we act inappropriately when the stakes are high and say things we should never say. So it’s a great combination, to me, of wonderful comedy mixed with pretty interesting social commentary and dramatic situations.

Your show in April is called Cock. In its theater listings, The New York Times called it “____ (‘The Cockfight Play’).” Will The Kansas City Star have similar issues?

Two seasons ago we had to work with the Star on how to print The Motherf**ker with the Hat and we came up with a clever way to print it. With Cock, we add a visual element, the rooster, because the metaphor of the play is that it’s very much like a cockfight. The play starts out with two men young men in a relationship, and one of them meets a woman he falls in love with. It is about a relationship between three people who are very much in turmoil. So it’s set up in a boxing ring or cockfight ring. That was where we wanted people’s heads to go, as opposed to in another direction, a sexual direction.

But if you don’t want people’s heads to go that direction, why would Mike Bartlet give his play a name that makes it sound like porn?

I totally think he was trying to get people’s attention. Without a doubt. When I’m talking to a group of people about the season and I get to that play, I watch people’s faces and their eyes get wide. When it played in Washington, D.C., people were hesitant to buy tickets before they heard from friends, ‘Oh no, no, no, it’s so interesting, there’s no nudity, it doesn’t go to the deepest darkest regions of your imagination.’ It was only after people got to see it that the production sold out.

It’s an incredible play – it just brings up great issues. The language is, you know, a bit strong, and that’s the kind of plays that we do. I just think, you know, if people are tepid or shy, if those titles are going to turn people off then great, maybe they shouldn’t come.

What is the role of the title character?

It’s about two men in a relationship, so there is that reference. You won’t see it, but you’ll hear about it.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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