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.