Since 1979, Levin has worked on presenting more than 321 contemporary plays to Kansas City audiences — including many world premieres — employing empathetic storytelling to dispel stereotypes and giving voice to marginalized individuals and issues regarding gender, race, religion and sexual orientation
Kansas City, MO – Unicorn Theatre today announced that Producing Artistic Director Cynthia Levin will retire in June 2024. Levin’s departure will culminate a historic run spanning more than four decades at one of Kansas City’s landmark theatres, where she gained a regional and national reputation for innovating and bringing to life bold and diverse plays with powerful messages and illuminating people in an empathetic and unique way.
Unicorn Theatre Board of Directors will conduct a search in the coming months to appoint a new producing artistic director to build on Levin’s remarkable pioneering legacy.
Levin joined Unicorn Theatre in 1979, when it was called Theatre Workshop, as an actor/director/stage manager/sound designer. In January 1983 she was offered the job of artistic director, at a time when women artistic directors were a rarity in American theatre. She negotiated the theatre’s first contract with Actor’s Equity Association in 1984. In 1986, the year Unicorn Theatre moved to its current home at 3828 Main St., Levin’s title evolved into producing artistic director.
“Cynthia has spent decades tirelessly advocating for stories to be told on stage — sometimes provocative, always thought-provoking, never ordinary — that individually and collectively granted our community an artistic vision unlike anywhere else,” said Unicorn Theatre Board President Sally Everhart. “Her life-long commitment to Unicorn Theatre has been a gift of amazing, inspiring and memorable theatre to Kansas City, and we are all better for it.”
Winnie Dunn, who worked with Levin for nine years as a Unicorn Theatre Board member and served as board president from 2016-2018, said, “Cynthia had a calling to lead Unicorn Theatre; she forged new paths in designing, staging, directing, and fostering socially conscious theatre. I am a better human from experiencing her innovative artistry.”
Paving the way for KC audiences to see live theatre in new and unexpected ways
Under her visionary and intuitive leadership, Levin has brought scores of new plays, more than 60 world premieres, Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winners and Pulitzer Prize finalists to the theatre’s stages. These plays have helped to enlighten social issues by focusing on diversity and inclusive stories which include gender, race, religion and sexual orientation. A thoughtful curator of new plays, Levin has a proven and respected knack for choosing works to help foster the next generation of great American writers and artists who will create innovative and intimate theatrical experiences transcending the ordinary.
“New plays were a difficult sell to Kansas City,” said Levin. “People must trust that you are bringing something to their attention of value, and which has potential to change hearts and minds. The greatest compliment I ever received was at a Unicorn talkback session for The Exonerated, a play about people on death row who were found to be innocent. I located three recently exonerated men from Kansas City who I brought on stage with us to discuss their personal experiences about being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.
“A woman in the front row raised her hand and said, ‘When I came here today, I believed in the death penalty. Now, I am not so sure.’ This potential for theatre to change the world is why I do what I do.’”
Vision of bold new plays with a dedication to inclusion and diversity
Levin, whose efforts at Unicorn Theatre and outside collaborations significantly helped the Kansas City theatre community grow over the last 20 years, believes “the birth and success of so many new companies has helped to prove there is indeed room for many diverse voices. I am very proud of this city.”
Heart of America Shakespeare Festival Executive Artistic Director Sidonie Garrett deems Levin as “a potent, positive force in Kansas City and within our theatre community. The depth and breadth of the plays that Cynthia has directed and produced during the past 44 years is staggering.
“During her tenure the theatre has expanded to two stages, increasing its capability for creative storytelling,” continued Garrett. “Cynthia’s legacy is a rich history of passionate, heartfelt and thought-provoking stories that engage audiences and linger with them for days after they’ve left the theatre. The aptly named Levin Stage will remind us of her tenacity and dedication and will welcome us all for years to come. Cynthia is a great friend and colleague, and her work and commitment continue to be an inspiration to me. I am excited to experience and be part of her final season at the Unicorn Theatre.”
Coveted awards and favorite productions
Several prestigious awards have been bestowed on Levin throughout her career for distinguished artistic accomplishments. Two awards Levin regards as particularly meaningful: the Human Rights Campaign Equality Award (2007) and the Kathryn V. Lamkey Award (2018) from the Actor’s Equity Association, the union for professional actors and stage managers, honoring Unicorn Theatre’s ongoing commitment to inclusion and representation on the stage.
“These awards underscore the same qualities of the plays I choose to produce — to serve our mission and my personal philosophy — reflecting our passion for and commitment to inclusion and diversity across the spectrum,” said Levin.
Twenty-five years ago, Levin served as a founding board member of the National New Play Network (NNPN), an alliance established to support the development and production of new works. She was selected as a Local Hero by Ingram’s Magazine for her exceptional commitment to philanthropy and on behalf of non-profit organizations in Kansas City and she was also honored with the Pinnacle Award for Excellence in the Arts and the GLAAD Leadership Award, among other accolades. A graduate of Park University in Parkville, Missouri, Levin was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 2002.
Levin counts among her favorite productions: Expiring Minds Want to Know Or Six Women With Brain Death, 1986-1987 Season (by Cheryl Benge, Christy Brandt, Rosanna E. Coppedge, Valerie Fagan, Ross Freese, Mark Houston, Sandee Johnson and Peggy Pharr Wilson); Beirut, 1989-1990 Season (by Alan Bowne); Falsettoland, 1991-1992 Season (by William Finn); Flyin’ West, 1996-1997 Season (by Pearl Cleage); Having Our Say, 1998-1999 Season (by Pearl Cleage); The Laramie Project, 2001-2002 Season (by Moisés Kaufman); The Exonerated, 2004-2005 Season (by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen); My Name Is Asher Lev, 2012-2013 Season (by Aaron Posner); and Refuge, 2022-2023 Season (co-created by Satya Jnani Chavez & Andrew Rosendorf, translation by Marialuisa Burgos).
History of transformative theatre
Unicorn Theatre moved to its current location on Main Street in 1986, when it transformed an 80-year-old automotive shop, Belman Garage, into a functional, intimate theatre space. A thrust stage, extending into the audience on three sides, created a greater intimacy between performers and the audience. The Main Stage, a 152-seat theatre, was renamed The Levin Stage in 2014 to honor Levin’s many contributions to Kansas City’s theatre landscape. It remained as the venue’s single stage until The Jerome Stage, a 120-seat black box theatre named after Norge W. Jerome, a nutritional anthropologist and former Unicorn Theatre board member, was added during 2008’s robust Capital Campaign. A foundational creative building block for the Kansas City community, Unicorn Theatre will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024.
One of Levin’s favorite quotes she often shared with members of the press and in playbills throughout the years personifies her deep passion for Unicorn Theatre’s mission: “My hope is that every time you come to the Unicorn, you discover something about yourself you didn’t know before walking in.”
Unicorn Theatre’s production history and Levin’s directing credits can be seen here.
“It is inevitable for change to happen,” said Levin. “My hope is that Unicorn Theatre will continue to embrace the importance of this exciting challenge in the future. I have no doubt that with the right leadership, it will grow along with the ever-expanding needs of the community. The Unicorn is not just a building. It is the heart and soul of the people who work here, along with the incredible support of the people who trust us to do that important work.”
About Unicorn Theatre
Founded in 1974, Unicorn Theatre enhances the Kansas City community by developing and producing high-quality, thought-provoking plays that have never been seen in the region. We illuminate social issues by shining a light on diversity and inclusive stories which include race, religion and gender identity. Unicorn creates opportunities for the advancement of emerging and established actors, directors, playwrights, designers, technicians and administrative staff. Unicorn Theatre is under the artistic and executive leadership of Producing Artistic Director Cynthia Levin, who joined the company in 1979. From a newly expanded home in the Midtown neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri, the Unicorn houses two stages—The Levin Stage (formerly The Main Stage) and The Jerome Stage (added in 2008). After a year-long capital campaign Unicorn Theatre was able to purchase the building outright in 2014. A fully professional not-for-profit theatre, the theatre operates under agreement with Actor’s Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States. The Unicorn is a founding member of the National New Play Network, an alliance of not-for-profit professional theatres that champions the development, production and continued life of new plays for the American theatre; and is a constituent member of Theatre Communications Group, Inc., the national service organization for the not-for-profit professional theatre. Financial assistance for this theatre has been provided by The National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; Hallmark, The Shubert Foundation, Theatre League, Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund, National New Play Network, Arts KC; and the generous individuals throughout the community we serve. For more information about Unicorn Theatre, visit https://unicorntheatre.org.