Unicorn's 'Iggy Scrooge' Collaborators Share a Past and Present
December 8, 2011
by Paul Donovan
The holiday season is a time of many traditions, of habits and celebrations that many people consider almost sacred. From The Nutcracker to It's a Wonderful Life, people gather to celebrate family, giving and goodwill.
And then there's the Unicorn Theatre.
Don't misunderstand me - the Unicorn Theatre is also about tradition and community. But their holiday offerings follow more in the vein of A Christmas Story than A Christmas Carol. The Unicorn often offers stories this time of year that skewer favorite Christmas traditions (as in The Santaland Diaries), or religious attitudes in general (such as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You). Last year they even had the uniquely entertaining A Very Joan Crawford Christmas.
One of the more interesting traditions about the Unicorn's Christmas shows is that they usually star Kansas City's comedy savant, Ron Megee. Well, it's the holidays again, and Megee is back. But this time he's brought his spiritual sister, Missy Koonce.
Megee and Koonce were two of the masterminds behind the goofily subversive Late Night Theatre, which provided Kansas City with over-the-top, scandalous entertainment from 1997 to 2007 (I still have a reel of pornographic film that I won in a raffle in their early days at the Chelsea Theater). Ever since Late Night Theatre closed up shop, their pairings have been relatively rare. But this month, they are back together, taking on nobody less than Charles Dickens.
The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge is a rock 'n' roll update of A Christmas Carol. It was written in 1994, and the Unicorn first produced it in 1997, under the direction of Cynthia Levin (who is now enjoying her 33rd year as producing artistic director of the Unicorn). Eleven years later, Iggy Scrooge returns, with an updated look and new focus.
Upon arriving at the theater to discuss the past and present Scrooge with Koonce, Levin and Megee, I am greeted by a cheerful and dapper Megee. He reminds me of Jimmy Stewart - the exact opposite of his lewdly madcap female impersonations that made him famous. As we sit down, Levin appears, almost as if by magic, from behind a curtain. Levin exudes a friendly, warm confidence that can only come from someone who, well, owns the place - not only the physical theater space that she has run for three decades, but also her own skin. Levin has an almost physical wisdom that permeates everything she does.
After Levin greets me, Megee announces that Koonce is running late - she is trapped in her driveway. I am slightly puzzled by this sentence, but Levin just nods understandingly. Apparently such events are natural consequences of being Missy Koonce.
Every time I have ever met Koonce, she has seemed to make an entrance with a small gust of wind, even if she's already indoors. Sure enough, about five minutes after we begin the interview, Koonce gusts through the door, a mysterious breeze blowing in from the hallway behind her.
"One-way streets are hard when there are airplane shuttle buses," Koonce announces by way of apology. She flips off her coat, gives us all a kiss, pulls up a chair and jumps right in to the conversation. That's the other thing about Koonce - she seems to need almost no transition time between activities.
Levin says that when she directed The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge 14 years ago, the focus was on the acting - the musical aspects took a back seat. However, Koonce, whose strength is ensemble musical productions, is directing the current production. Megee is caught between them: In Levin's production of Iggy Scrooge he played the Ghost of Christmas Past, Roy Orbison. In Koonce's version, he is playing the Ghost of Christmas Present, Elvis Presley.
Being in both productions of the show gives Megee a unique perspective on the differences in directing styles between Koonce and Levin. (I found it interesting that during the interview, Megee was actually sitting directly between the two.)
Megee tells me that the directors have opposite approaches. Levin starts with the details and then fits all the pieces together in the big picture toward the end. Koonce, however, finds the big picture first and then helps the actors fit into that. Or, as Megee summarizes it, "Cynthia nitpicks at the beginning of rehearsals. Missy nitpicks at the end."
But he says the differing styles don't change the quality of the end piece. "They both know how to get to the root of the characters and the issues. And they both understand my quirks, so I don't look like a fool."
When I ask Levin whether she had to grit her teeth watching the new production because she would have made different choices, she takes it in stride.
"As directors - and even as actors - we naturally compare what we see with what we would have done. The thing is, I make sure to surround myself with people I trust to do a good job, even if it's not the same way I would do it. It all works out that way."
Koonce agrees. "I mean, Cynthia is the artistic director of the theater. I depend on her to catch things I miss. Ultimately, she's in charge of making sure the show doesn't suck."
I ask Megee which character of this Scrooge story resonates with him most, now that he's played two of the ghosts. Megee pauses. When he speaks, his voice has dropped a bit. He says that while he does enjoy playing the ghosts, he really does relate best to the Scrooge character.
"I've been an ass in my life," Megee conceded. "It finally took friends and other people to show me the light. I've worked over the past few years to become a better person, so I can really relate to Iggy."
This insight gives Megee a certain emotional punch when portraying the ghosts that teach Scrooge his lesson. "At first you find the humor in these characters, but then you realize that they really are trying to shine a light on the situation."
Another new element for this production of Iggy Scrooge is that the Unicorn has partnered with UMKC students to help put it on. Koonce says she was excited to have so many designers working on the production; she's not used to such a big supporting crew.
However, this also has its challenges. "I usually work with the same people over and over, and after awhile they start to "get" me. I usually go on emotion and feelings. I know I won't need to explain myself - everybody just knows what I'm thinking and goes with it. But working with UMKC students has been a challenge, and it has been good for me. Because it makes me reassess my communication skills and I realize that not everybody can read my mind."
It's not just a new crew that Koonce is working with, but new actors as well.
"Since I have the same group of people I always go to, I enjoy the synergy we have. I can say, 'Ron, do that thing that I like that you do that would be appropriate in this place' and he'll say 'Oh yeah.' Or sometimes Ron will say 'Do you want that one thing, that I did in the...' and I'll just say, 'Yeah, that thing, but mix in a little bit of that other thing.' He'll understand. But I can't do that with the other actors."
Megee nods sagely at Koonce's description of their relationship. "The other day," he said, "some of the UMKC students were watching us intently, and a little later they asked me, 'What language were you two speaking?'" Megee laughs. "I replied, 'You know, brother-sister language.'"
Their "brother-sister language" is evident to anybody that watches them for more than five minutes. They are so in tune with each other that some people in Kansas City really do believe that they are siblings. And when I ask them when they actually met, they are not completely sure.
Officially, Koonce and Megee met in the mid-1980s, when they were students at Tarkio College in northwest Missouri. But having both grown up in the Kansas City metro area, they suspect that they actually met in high school, during one of the many parties that gay high school kids would throw themselves.
"We were the young '80s gays," Koonce explains. "We didn't have anywhere to go, so we would have parties in our parents' houses when they were gone, and people would drive from a 30-mile radius to get together."
Although Megee-Koonce pairings are depressingly rare, there are signs of coming changes. Koonce says that recently they have been talking about projects that they could start working on together again. Megee has a twinkle in his eye, but says they aren't ready for any official announcements yet.
And as for Levin, she's got her own plans for the future, other than her continuous hunting for the next season's plays. As readers may remember, the Unicorn completed a multi-year fundraising effort that resulted in the construction of a secondary stage on expanded Unicorn property in 2008. Despite the fact that it is only three years old, Levin is ready to tear out the seats and redo it.
"It needs to be more flexible," she says, with a sense of urgency in her voice. "We need to be able to set it up differently every time, in order to keep it exciting."
As Levin describes her vision for the next evolution of the Unicorn, Koonce suddenly leans forward in her chair and begins talking about how she wants to do a cabaret show there. The two visionary women talk about the possibilities of a more flexible theater space, throwing ideas back and forth to each other.
As they're doing this, I look over at Megee. He is sitting calmly between them, following their conversation with a small, amused smile on his face. Whatever they decide to do next, he knows he's also flexible enough to be a part of it.