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Gone But Not Forgotten Theatres and Theatre Companies Part 4

Gone But Not Forgotten Theatres and Theatre Companies Part 4

In part one we discussed The Pearl  Co., then WPA and Circle Rep. In part three The Hudson Guild Theatre and Circle in the Square.

The American Place Theatre was founded by Wynn Handman and The Rev. Sidney Lanier at St. Clement’s Church (Lanier was the Rector of St. Clement’s) in W. 46th St. in the mid-1960s and was, for a time, quite a cutting-edge company. This was before there was much off and off-off Broadway, so theatregoers in search of an alternative to Broadway had a place to go. Handman did poetic dramas, such as Robert Lowell’s The Old Glory and William Alfred’s Hogan’s Goat, which featured a standout newcomer named Faye Dunaway, soon to be lost to Hollywood, and Sam Shepard’s monologue play Killer’s Head, featuring another newcomer whose name was Richard Gere.

In the early 1970’s New York City started offering tax breaks to developers who included a theatre in their new skyscrapers – for tax purposes, they were granted ten free stories – which resulted in the Minskoff Theatre (in the Minskoff Building on the site of the old Hotel Astor), the Uris (now the Gershwin), Circle in the Square Uptown and an off Broadway theatre in the new J.P. Stevens building in W. 46th St. just off Avenue of the Americas. Handman moved his theatre into this new space, which was to lead to the American Place’s downfall. Plays which seemed oh-so cutting-edge in Hell’s Kitchen had trouble appealing to the Broadway critics, let alone attracting audiences to a theatre just off Times Square. The critics were often harsh in their assessments of their productions, I think because they expected a more mainstream experience in the Broadway theatre district. Walter Kerr (admittedly, a rather conservative critic) once referred to the American Place as “that continuing disaster area.” It got harder and harder for Handman to keep the theatre going, and eventually he downsized to a basement space way below street level (which is now known as the Roundabout Underground), finally folding altogether.

 Charlayne Woodard, Mary Gordon Murray, Roo Brown, Randy Graff and Alaina Reed in A…MY NAME IS ALICE (1983) by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne 

One of the most important and long-term legacies of the American Place, though, is the Women’s Project, founded by Handman’s Literary Manager, Julia Miles, with the support of the Ford Foundation, to do new plays by women, directed by women, at a time when both were exceedingly rare. She struck gold with her first production, a revue concocted by Julianne Boyd and Joan Micklin Silver, which opened in the basement space of the American Place and moved to the Village Gate (alas, another lost theatre) in Bleecker Street, where it ran about a year. This was A … My Name Is Alice, a wonderful revue of songs and sketches about contemporary womanhood written by several prominent playwrights and composers, which Julia invited me to and which I got my boss at Samuel French to acquire, which went on to many productions across the country, as well as two sequels. Eventually, Ms. Miles began producing in the original Theatre Row theatres, before moving into Theatre Four in W. 55th St., subsequently the Julia Miles Theatre, where the Women’s Project was ensconced for several years before having to vacate the premises because the theatre was just too decrepit. A few years ago, the Women’s Project rebranded as the WP Theatre. Although it’s peripatetic again, it continues to be an important off Broadway theatre company. 

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For over thirty years, Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by new playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others; and the acquisition of musicals such as Smoke on the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice and Little Shop of Horrors. He has edited over 100 anthologies for Smith and Kraus, Inc. For Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, he has edited several monologue, full length, 10-minute and 5-minute play anthologies. Currently, he is editing books solely for Applause. He has set up a new division for Applause to publish and license individual full length plays, as well as the World Premiere Club. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” appeared in the Chelsea Clinton News and the Westsider for several years and then moved to www.smithandkraus.com. In December of 2019, it began running on the Applause website, www.applausebooks.com. It also appears on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He also writes occasional columns for Theatre Record, a London-based magazine. He was a member for many years of two NYC press organizations, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, and served on the Drama Desk Awards Nominating Committee for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres. He taught playwriting in the Theatre Dept. of the University of Michigan in the winter semester of 2016. He holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. His latest anthologies of monologues and 10-minute plays were published in December, 2019 by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books.

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