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Central Standard

How The Unicorn's Cynthia Levin Brought East-Coast Activism To The Kansas City Stage

Paul Andrews
Cynthia Levin with her dog, Zia, at the Unicorn Theatre.

Forty years is a long time to spend in one place, doing one thing. Especially when the goal is to ruffle feathers.

But that's what the Unicorn Theatre's producing artistic director Cynthia Levin has done, turning an anti-establishment theater into an established venue.

And this year, she's earned recognition for that work in the form of a Kathryn V. Lamkey award from the Actors' Equity Association, the union for professional actors and stage managers. This particular award, the "Kathy" as they call it, is given to people and organizations who consistently provide opportunities for underrepresented members of the union living and working in the Midwest.

That knack for representing the underrepresented has been part of her work at the Unicorn from the beginning.

"We got this sort of reputation of, 'Oh yeah, that's the theater that does all the plays about women. That's the place where the play's about African Americans and the naked ones and the gay — that's because nobody else was doing any of it," Levin says. "Now I think there's a little bit more of spreading that around, but there sure wasn't in the '80s and '90s."

In the 2017-2018 season, Levin staged "Hir," a play with a central character who identifies as transgender and uses gender neutral pronouns, played by an actor with a similar life experience, and a play with an all-Asian-American cast

Her self-imposed rule for the Unicorn: She'll only produce plays that have never been performed on a Kansas City stage.

"If I've done something before, if I've done a show before, if I've seen the show before, I want to move on. It's time to do something else," she says. "And in contemporary theater, the new thing is being written today or tomorrow. So I get to find what's absolutely about our life today and put it on the stage."

The Unicorn is known for taking risks and tackling taboo subject matter, which is second-nature to Levin. She grew up in Washington D.C., in what she calls an "integrated world," with a politically active family.

"You were involved in everything," she says. "You couldn't help it because you were living it."

She spent her early years doing things like canvassing for John F. Kennedy with her mom. As a teen, she was out protesting the Vietnam War, guitar in hand, getting tear-gassed in the nation's capital.

Following the rules and being quiet were never her strengths, which, she says, gave her trouble in the public school system. So she attended an experimental school, where students were graded on a pass/fail basis.

"So at the end of high school," she explains, "I didn't really have a grade point average. I had an 'I passed.' And it's like, 'Oh, that's great,' said the colleges."

For a long time, Levin figured she just wouldn't go to college. But then she happened to hear about a theater program at Park University. She heard that it was unconventional, very hands-on, with small class sizes.

And Levin thought that living in Missouri would help her concentrate.

"I didn't know anyone a thousand miles in any direction," she says.

But her arrival in Kansas City in 1973 didn't exactly seem destined for a happily-ever-after.

After driving here through the snow, having never been west of Philadelphia, Levin crossed a bridge into the Northland in her Volkswagen. 

"I just pulled over and cried," she recalls. "It was a very different place. On one side of the street was the black cemetery and on the other side of the street was the white cemetery. There were no Jews north of the river.... It was absolutely culture shock."

It took a while for Kansas City to feel like home. But theater has been a home to Levin from the beginning. 

"I found this one thing that I could give a hundred percent of my energy to and it was OK. It wasn't like, Hey, that's too much. You know. Calm down." 

It started as a scrappy crew of graduate students who needed a place to work. Everyone on staff did everything. For Levin, that meant writing and performing music, contributing to set design, performing on stage, directing shows, whatever was needed. She never planned on becoming an artistic director.

"I was an artist," she says.

But as an artist, she had to take the work that was there. That meant playing roles she didn't believe in. Eventually, she realized it would mean more to her to choose the plays than to act in them.

Now, the job description of producing artistic director is one that suits her, because it means doing a lot of things at once. It means selecting the plays for each season, then selecting a director for each play, casting the productions and making sure the staff is working collaboratively together.

And she's proud of the results, which are about more than shock value to her.

"I mean, there has been nudity, there has been difficult language. There have been nude puppets doing sex.... But if I think if it is an important story to tell, we will tell it."

Portrait sessionsare intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City paired with photographs by Paul Andrews. You can listen to Gina Kaufmann's entire conversation with Cynthia Levin here.

Gina Kaufmannis the host of KCUR's Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter, @GinaKCUR.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.