Councilman Keith Powers, former Mayor Bill DeBlasio, former acting Wynn Handman students and maybe a star or two will gather Monday, September 12 at 11:00 a.m. at the southeast corner of 7th Avenue and from 56th Street to name West 56th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues as Wynn Handman Way.
Wynn Handman (5/19/1922 – 4/11/2020) was an artistic giant, both as a theater producer and a theater teacher. A lifelong New Yorker, he grew up in Inwood but lived most of his adult life in the Carnegie Hall neighborhood, residing with his wife, Bobbie Handman, and two daughters, Laura and Liza, at 853 Seventh Avenue near 55th Street.
One of this city’s most revered theater teachers for more than 65 years, he taught for 28 years, from 1955 to 1983, on the second floor of a now-demolished carriage house opposite the stage door. from Carnegie Hall on West 56th Street. (At the time, the south side of West 56th Street was lined with old carriage houses.) In 1983, he moved his classes to studio 808 of the historic Carnegie Hall Artist Studios, above the hall of concert, where he taught until 2008. From 2008 to 2019, he taught on West 54th Street, then finally in his apartment in Wyoming, on 7th Avenue and 55th Street, until he be forced to stop teaching on March 12, 2020 due to the COVID lockdown. He died of pneumonia linked to Covid-19 on April 11, 2020 at the age of 97.
Among the thousands of students Handman taught on West 56th Street were: Joel Gray, Michael Douglas, Richard Gere, Burt Reynolds, Denzel Washington, Phyllis Newman, Frank Langella, Carol Lawrence, Joanne Woodward, James Caan, Alec Baldwin, Red Buttons, Mia Farrow, Raul Julia, Mira Sorvino, Sandy Duncan, Kathleen Chalfant, Allison Janney, Connie Britton, Aasif Mandvi, John Leguizamo, Lauren Graham, Susan Lucci, Chris Cooper and Marianne Leone, Allyce Beasley, Brad Davis and Margaret Trudeau.
A pioneering Off-Broadway producer, Wynn Handman co-founded The American Place Theater in 1962 with Reverend Sidney Lanier and Michael Tolan at St. Clements Church on West 46th Street. One of New York’s first nonprofit theaters, it was dedicated solely to developing new American playwrights. Writers whose work was developed and produced there included Robert Lowell, Maria Irene Fornes, William Alfred, Ron Milner, Charlie L. Russell, Ed Bullins, George Tabori, Frank Chin, Sam Shepard, Ron Tavel, Joyce Carol Oates , Steve Tesich, Jonathan Reynolds, Clare Coss, William Hauptman, Jeff Wanshel and soloists Bill Irwin, Eric Bogosian, John Leguizamo and Aasif Mandvi. In 1970, The American Place moved to a custom-built basement complex at 111 West 46th Street, where it operated until 2002. The organization has received several dozen Village Voice Obie Awards and AUDELCO Awards for l excellence in black theatre.
Beginning in 1994, American Place Theater entered a new phase in its creative life with the launch of its Literature to Life program, which created verbatim adaptations of important works of American literature to excite the literacy of young minds. His productions were performed by solo actors and were offered to colleges and high schools. Most of the projects were helmed by Handman and many were helmed by Elise Thoron, who now runs the program. Project 451, a fundraising initiative of Literature to Life, was launched in the 2008/2009 season to ensure that reading, writing, and the arts remain an essential component of the education of young American citizens.
Wynn Handman’s awards included the CCNY Townsend Harris Medal (his highest honor), the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award, the New Federal Theater Lifetime Achievement Award, an honorary doctorate from the University of Miami, a Rosetta LeNoire Award from Actors Equity” in recognition of his artistic achievement and contribution to “the universality of the human experience in American theater”, a Margo Jones Award to a “theater citizen who has demonstrated significant impact, understanding and affirmation of the art of playwriting, with a lifelong commitment to encouraging Living Theater everywhere”, a Carnegie Mellon Commitment to Playwriting Award and a Working Theater Sanford Meisner Service Award for “leadership in bringing the arts to workers.” On May 19, 2020, the Off-Broadway Alliance named Handman an “Off-Broadway Legend.”
His life and career have been documented in Jeremy Gerard’s “Wynn Place Show: A Biased History of the Rollicking Life & Extreme Times of Wynn Handman and The American Place Theatre” (Smith and Kraus Publishers, 2014) and the documentary film “It Takes a Lunatic”, produced and directed by Billy Lyons, co-directed by Kim Ferraro and Seth Isler (Netflix, 2019).