The Unicorn Theatre exists to enhance the cultural life of Kansas City by producing professional contemporary, thought-provoking theater, which inspires emotional response and stimulates discussion.
Unicorn Theatre celebrates its 30th anniversary season in 2003/2004. With a history of producing more than 200 plays, 25 percent of them World Premieres, the theatre continues this tradition with a mix of contemporary plays that challenge, nourish and change the lives of its audiences.
In the fall of 1974 three UMKC theatre graduates rented an old warehouse in Kansas City's historic River Market area and called it Theatre Workshop. In May 1975, Kansas City Star drama critic Giles Fowler wrote of the fledgling Theatre Workshop, "There is something about the place -something about the spirit and guts-that makes you want to see it thrive." And thrive it did. By November 1976, Theatre Workshop had produced 28 plays, including 4 originals by local playwrights, and was recognized by the Missouri Arts Council with an artist-in-residence grant.
During the 1970s Theatre Workshop continued to advance and expand, moving to the former Norman Elementary School at 35th and Jefferson for increased seating capacity and greater flexibility in staging. In 1981, Theatre Workshop changed its name to Unicorn Theatre and received additional Missouri Arts Council funding to stage an original script. Since then, the National Playwrights' Award has produced at least one full-scale production of an original work each year to national acclaim. Mark Houston's Expiring Minds Want to Know, Or Six Women with Brain Death won the Best Original Script Award at the Kansas City Theatre Awards (KCTA) and continues to be produced across the country. In 1984, Unicorn Theatre joined Actors' Equity Association, the national union of professional actors. Two years later, Unicorn moved to its current location in the mid-town business district. An 80 year-old brick garage was transformed into a modern, intimate theater with a thrust stage and a seating capacity of 150.
In recent years, Unicorn has earned a reputation as Kansas City's premiere theatre, providing patrons with quality, thought-provoking plays which otherwise would not be seen in this area. In 1987, the Unicorn produced the World Premiere of Lawrence Perkins' Doin' the Reality Rag which utilized the talents of five physically challenged actors, won KCTA's Best Play award and was featured on CBS Sunday Morning. One year later, Unicorn Theatre became one of only three area performing arts organizations to receive National Endowment for the Arts funding. Over the next few years, KCTA Best Play awards went to Talk Radio, Burn This, and Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune. 1992 saw Falsettoland break box office records and garner Best Musical and other awards. KCTA accolades continued in 1993 for Unicorn productions of Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Mad Forest. Thanatos, the winner of the 1993 National Playwrights' Award, played out to sold-out houses and critical acclaim in January 1994, then moved on to one of New York's Off-Broadway stages.
In January 1995, the Unicorn featured an original production written, directed and performed by African-Americans. Community response to David Barr's Betrayal of the Black Jesus helped the playwright publish his work and reinforced Unicorn Theatre's plan to diversify programming by including an African-American work each season. The Unicorn solidified its position as the only professional theatre company in Kansas City to produce plays by and about African-Americans in 1996. That spring the theatre produced Cheryl L. West's provocative portrait of the African-American women's experience, Jar the Floor, which played to sold-out crowds and earned rave reviews
Twenty-one years of "daring to be different" paid off in 1995. Unicorn's production of Brad Frasier's controversial Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love pulled the heartstrings of sold-out houses and won Best Play at the 1995 Drama Desk Awards. In addition, the Unicorn was granted the opportunity to stage a World Premiere by the highly praised playwright, Jane Martin. Jack and Jill found warm reception in Kansas City and positive reviews in the national press. Finally, the prestigious Shubert Foundation in New York began its funding of the Unicorn for its ongoing commitment to contemporary American theatre.
Our 22nd season continued the upward trend in both reputation and attendance. Unicorn Theatre was voted Best Theatre for Plays in Kansas City by The New Times and attendance rose to 76.28% capacity-the highest level in our history. In February 1996, Unicorn became the only theatre in the region to obtain the rights to produce Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America. As the two-parter continued into Unicorn's 23rd season, critics and audiences alike hailed Unicorn's production as the most courageous and successful ever. Angels in America went on to win five Kansas City Drama Desk Awards the following spring. The theatre entertained sold-out houses with Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West and Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion
During its 24th season, the Unicorn Theatre celebrated the acquisition of its newly expanded space. Interior improvements included a new box office and lobby entered from Main Street as well as rehearsal space and new offices for the administrative staff. The Kansas City community named the Unicorn the Best Local Theatre Group once again, as well as Best Place to See a Play in PitchWeekly's 1997 "Best of Kansas City" Poll, and The Kansas City Star called the Unicorn's programming "the most interesting and adventurous fare of any theatre in town."
In 1998, the Unicorn joined the National New Play Network, formed to promote the development of new plays and playwrights. This association provided the Unicorn valuable resources to give the theater a national presence.
The Unicorn opened its 25th anniversary with 25 sold-out performances of Having Our Say and followed that play's success with an impressive production of Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner, How I Learned to Drive. During its 26th season, the Unicorn produced Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner, Wit, which attracted such large audiences that its run was extended by three weeks. The 27th season included an extended run of Yasmina Reza's award-winning play, 'Art' while the theatre's 28th season included three shows whose runs were extended because of the demand for tickets: The Laramie Project, Proof and Fully Committed.
The Unicorn’s 29th season, which reached all-time highs for number of season subscriptions sold and amount of foundation dollars granted, featured the world premiere of Kansas City Native American playwright Philip blue owl Hooser’s comedic tribute to Lucille Ball, Loving Lucy and as well as Bat Boy: The Musical, The Shape of Things, and The Memory of Water.