A crowd of friends, Wynn’s daughters Laura, and Liza Handman, close friend, filmmaker, acting teacher Billy Lyons, former Mayor Bill DeBlasio and City Councilman Keith Powers gathered together around 11 AM on the corner of 7th Avenue and 56th Street, September 12, 2022. They were there to celebrate the recognition of Wynn Handman’s prodigious contributions to American theater, American society and New York City with the renaming of 56th St. between 6th and 7th Avenue as “Wynn Handman Way.” This recognition is a long time coming and well deserved, though many may not be familiar with the name Wynn Handman.
Wynn flew under the radar unlike other acting teachers. Reading about Wynn’s life, seeing him in talkbacks, one in 2018 at Tribeca Film Festival after the showing of Billy Lyon’s film on Wynn, It Takes a Lunatic, (a Tribeca review is at this link https://caroleditosti.com/tag/wynn-handman/), one immediately has the sense that Wynn was all about the work. Perhaps the last thing he was interested in was promoting himself or advertising his acting classes. He never did. Yet, somehow, actors who studied with him and later became giants in film and on stage (i.e. Olympia Dukakis, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard, Michael Douglas, Richard Gere), found out about Wynn and studied with him, realizing it’s all about the work, the authenticity, the humanity of the characters they portrayed.
To study acting with Wynn, one picked up information about him by word of mouth. He was down-to-earth, authentic, loving. At the Wynn Handman Street Sign Dedication, those who knew and loved him best, his daughters Liza and Laura and his friend and filmmaker biographer of Wynn, Billy Lyons, spoke fondly about Wynn. What a boon to study acting with him and be in his presence and in the presence of others studying with him. Just to be a fly on the wall would have been enough. However, if you were accepted after you auditioned, you worked, and worked hard.
Wynn Handman was the Artistic Director of The American Place Theatre, which he co-founded with Sidney Lanier and Michael Tolan in 1963. Going against the grain and a maverick for his time, Wynn engaged with Lanier and Tolan because they understood the vitality of theater to change lives and improve cultural understanding and awareness, making us more humane and empathetic. With these goals in mind and many more, Wynn and the others intended to encourage, train, and present new and exciting writing and acting talent and to develop and produce new plays by living American playwrights and writers.
As a change agent, The American Place Theatre was one of the first not-for-profit theaters in NYC. Unlike the current mission of non profits which sometimes appears to serve the CEOs and not the actors, creatives and playwrights, The American Place Theatre was dedicated solely to the development of new American playwrights and writers. Writers whose work was developed and produced there included Robert Lowell, Maria Irene Fornes, William Alfred, Ron Milner, C Frank Chin, Sam Shepard, Ron Tavel, Joyce Carol Oates, Clare Coss, William Hauptman, Jeff Wanshel, and solo performers Bill Irwin, Eric Bogosian, John Leguizamo and Aasif Mandvi, to name a few.
The American Place Theatre moved to a custom-built basement complex in 1970. The complex at 111 West 46th Street, operated until 2002. The organization received several dozen Village Voice Obie Awards and AUDELCO Awards for excellence in Black Theater.
Always at the forefront of innovation with the intent to impact the New York City community, in 1994 friends and members, led by Wynn under the auspices of The American Place Theatre, created a Literature to Life program. The program adapted significant works of American literature to encourage literacy. Performed by solo actors, productions were offered to middle schools and high schools. Wynn Handman directed a number of projects. Also, Elise Thoron directed other projects; currently she heads up the program. To continue with the vital importance of literacy and theater’s place in revitalizing young people’s interest in reading, Project 451, a funding initiative of Literature to Life came into being during the 2008/2009 season. The mission is to ensure that reading, writing, and the arts remain a primary component of the education of young American citizens.
In the videos above City Councilman Keith Powers and former Mayor Bill DeBlasio underscore the great contributions Wynn Handman made to the New York City community and American theater. Funding, which has become problematic with skyrocketing city rents and the focus on purely commercial shows, has modified the impact of innovation, risk-taking and genius in the theater arts, and other processes and attributes that Wynn Handman prized.
In his remarks Billy Lyons stated that Wynn told him not to fret or worry about American theater and the direction in which it appeared to be going. He said in effect, “Don’t be a “Miniver Cheevy.” Wynn’s reference to the Edwin Arlington Robinson poetic portrait of “Miniver Cheevy,” a man who mourned the glories of the past and drowned himself in drink, is apt. How comfortable it would be for theater to rest on the laurels of past great American playwrights, and quail at producing those who exemplify the unique, original, current and “off the charts” shows. How facile to put away the maverick and the daring for the sake of commercial success. Don’t fail has become the unspoken meme wafting through the psyches of those in the theater arts.
Indeed, the innovations in American theater have been occluded by rapacious Philistines quick to produce a Jukebox Musical, easy to finance a show adapted from a film that has a “sure-fire,” lucrative track record. There is nothing wrong with that. And yet, there is everything wrong with that. Is balance possible beyond Off Broadway and non-profits which overly reward the institution and give short shrift to the creatives?
To be forward thinking, as Wynn would have theater artists and producers be, then failure is something not to be feared. Above all the “critics” must understand the necessity of “Dynamic Theater,” which dares to fail to reemerge with new insights and new genius. Perhaps, in many respects, American theater over the past decades has been failing abysmally, though the box office looks good. There are plenty of anecdotes about shows whose audiences needed to catch up to their brilliance, doing better the second and third time around, when the time was “right and ripe.” Perhaps formulaic success is not an option, except in small doses. Isn’t a modicum of realignment necessary? After the ravages of COVID, it might be as good a time as any to innovate and take risks (i.e. Daryl Roth’s Kinky Boots reboot with reasonable ticket prices).
What to do in this shifting financial climate? We must rely on the generosity of those who have the abundant resources to share (private and government), so that they might bring ticket prices down, bring rentals down and establish more foundations to help subsidize the artists (actors, technicians, creatives), who live and work in New York City and justify its renown as the “#2 theater capital of the world.” If Wynn Handman has been a guiding light toward theater’s evolution, his “lunacy” must continue in theater’s bravest of hearts (producers, directors, actors, creatives), and all those willing to dedicate themselves to forge anew American theater’s next chapters.
Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Review: ‘It Takes a Lunatic,’ The Life and Times of Wynn Handman
Anyone who has been involved in the New York City theater world knows who the prodigiously awarded Wynn Handman is. He is a lunatic indeed, with a purpose and a passion. Wynn Handman’s love is for theatrical performance, teasing out character to achieve the pinnacle of believability that allows the actor to live “onstage.”
For decades Wynn Handman has been coaching actors to get in touch with the best part of themselves and release their God given talents. His appreciation for innovative theater is as legion as his humanity. It is expressed in the countless friendships he’s had over the years with writers, playwrights, musicians, directors and artists. Billy Lyons’ wonderful documentary is an incredible testament to a great man who continues to have an impact on all in his sphere of influence.
In its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, It Takes a Lunatic, director Billy Lyons (actor, director, teacher, producer and assistant to Wynn Handman) displays the man behind the mask and reveals there is no mask or gloss to Wynn Handman. Wynn is who he is, an authentic, witty, “tell-it-like-is” acting teacher, and he is this with everyone, large and small, famous or infamous, actor or layperson. Why change now? Wynn is 97-years-young and is still teaching acting. He has nothing to lose by being himself, which he always has been, “a wild and crazy guy!”
Lyons’ poignant tribute to this brilliant genius and loving artist is a lesson in learning to be real, to get to the core of oneself unapologetically, to take risks, to embrace the unique, and defy the status quo. And above all through this retrospective on Wynn, we learn that in the theatrical world, one should go where angels fear to tread to manifest the rewards of creative inspiration. Wynn has approached his life this way and has achieved what only a fearless magician would dare to even think about. He initiated The American Place Theatre and with it directed and hosted unknown and established playwrights and known writers who adapted their work into plays. Wynn allowed innovation to flourish and opened opportunities to black (Ed Bullins, Michael Bradford, Ron Milner) and Chinese (Frank Chin) and female (Emily Mann, María Irene Fornés) playwrights and actors at a time when opportunities for them were slender and doors opened infrequently.
Lyons reveals how Wynn effected this, through his own life experiences during and after the war when New York was opening up like a flower and anything seemed possible. Wynn learned from some of the best; he ended up studying with and assisting Sandy Meiser at The Neighborhood Playhouse. There he made his chops and had the grist to launch out on his own creating his own acting classes and sessions which he has continued doing for decades.
Lyons captures this dynamo through film and video interviews and archived family photos that span his early life and cover all parts in between through his marriage, later family life and continuous career, from 1949 up until the present. Lyons captures his enthusiasm, his great good will, humor, generosity and his flexibility to understand the importance of helping to hone the talents of actors, directors and writers. Video and film clips include interviews or discussions with/about a veritable “Who’s Who” of actors, directors and playwrights who studied or worked with Wynn. A few interviewed in the film or seen in photos or film clips are Richard Gere, Joel Grey, John Leguizamo, Bill Irwin, Raul Julia, Sam Waterston, Frank Langella, Sam Shepherd, Eric Bogosian, Michael Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Mira Sorvino, Susan Lucci, Woody King Jr, Faye Dunaway and many more.
Lyons includes historical clips from his acting and coaching classes as individuals discuss Wynn Handman’s approach toward his actors which was unlike many of the other acting teachers in the city who were austere and frightening. Every actor interviewed from Michael Douglas to Richard Gere tells anecdotes and experiences they had with Wynn, many humorous, all of them praiseworthy. He is the ideal acting teaching who dispels fear, encourages, comforts with his wise, calm demeanor. He knows just when to tell a joke or make one laugh. His suggestions and perceptions are superlative. From the introductory applause in the theater as Robert De Niro introduced Billy Lyons and the film, one could tell that Wynn’s hundreds of fans-many of them working actors and directors were present to support him. They gave him and Billy Lyons a standing ovation before and after the film.
The list of celebrities who studied with Wynn is impressive. Many of them have gone on to be award winners. Lyons includes fabulous black and white performance clips from some of the fascinating productions staged at The American Place Theatre and has various actors discuss their impact. Lyons delves into Wynn Handman’s close friendship with Sam Shepherd who he, in effect, put on the map by producing 8 of his plays at The American Place Theatre.
Wynn Handman conducted many series at The American Place Theatre. There was a Humorist’s series (i.e. Cavin Trillin, James Thurber, Jules Feiffer and others) A Woman’s Project Series, a Literature Series (various authors adapted their longer works into plays). Wynn encouraged the production of controversial, ground-breaking and thematically striking works.
In 1969 Wynn produced George Tabori’s The Cannibals a holocaust play which received a cool reception because the audience didn’t understand the piece as black comedy. Tabori’s play went on to be produced at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin where it received an incredible reception and outpouring of support because the Germans needed to deal with elements of the Holocaust and the play afforded them the opportunity. Tabori, a Hungarian Jew who swore he would never return to Berlin ended up moving there and becoming a vital force in German Theater. From the reception of this work, Tabori ended up writing additional plays and working in TV as opportunities opened up to him. Tabori became globally renowned and won various awards. Without Wynn Handman’s support for Tabori to present his plays, one wonders would this inspired story have ended the way it did? Lyons coverage of this segment in the history of NYC theater is monumental.
Additionally, in 1970, Wynn staged Tabori’s Pinkville starring Michael Douglas in a dynamic and highly praised performance. The play was an indictment of the US war in Vietnam. Pinkville was controversial and exceptional. It is another example of Wynn Handman’s courage in treading where theatrical producers feared to go. But in the film Handman emphasizes that The American Place Theatre was a non-profit theater, funded through subscriptions. So those who donated, paid their subscriptions because they wanted to see controversial, ground-breaking Off Broadway theater. The American Place Theatre was artistic theater in the best sense of the word and as one of the producers, Handman was free from worrying about the bottom line and commercialism that plagues NYC theater today.
The moderator of the Q & A that occurred after the screening was Jeremy Gerard who wrote the biography on Wynn Handman entitled Wynn, Place, Show. It is worth the read to review Wynn’s historical place in American theater and specifically his influence in shepherding so many sterling actors who are still working today.
The documentary superbly chronicles one man’s indelible impact on NYC theater and in particular revelatory drama. Lyons has created a gem of a film. It is a must-see for anyone pursuing a theater or entertainment career, and for those interested in how theater’s cultural impact can change lives. Look for It Takes a Lunatic online and check out their FB page.