City Councilman Keith Powers, former Mayor Bill DeBlasio, former acting students of Wynn Handman and maybe a star or two will gather Monday, September 12 at 11:00 AM on the southeast corner of 7th Avenue and 56th Street for the naming of 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 acting 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 his two daughters, Laura and Liza, at 853 Seventh Avenue near 55th Street.
One of this city’s most revered acting teachers for over 65 years, he taught for 28 years, from 1955 to 1983, on the second floor of a now-demolished carriage house facing the stage door of Carnegie Hall on West 56th Street. (At the time, 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 concert hall, where he taught until 2008. From 2008 to 2019 he taught on West 54th Street, then finally in his apartment in The Wyoming, on 7th Avenue and 55th Street, until he was forced to stop teaching on March 12, 2020 due to the COVID lockdown. He died from Covid-19 related pneumonia on April 11, 2020 at age 97.
Among the thousands of students Handman taught on West 56th Street were: Joel Grey, 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 & Marianne Leone, Allyce Beasley, Brad Davis, and Margaret Trudeau.
A pioneering Off-Broadway producer, Wynn Handman co-founded The American Place Theatre in 1962 with Rev. Sidney Lanier and Michael Tolan at St. Clements Church on West 46th Street. One of the first not-for-profit theaters in NYC, it was dedicated solely to the development of 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 solo performers 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 received several dozen Village Voice Obie Awards and AUDELCO Awards for excellence in Black Theater.
Beginning in 1994, The American Place Theatre entered a new phase of its creative life with the inception of its Literature to Life program, which created verbatim adaptations of significant works of American literature to excite literacy in young minds. Its productions were performed by solo actors and were offered to middle schools and high schools. Most of the projects were directed by Handman and many were directed by Elise Thoron, who heads the program now. Project 451, a funding initiative of Literature to Life, was started during the 2008/2009 season to ensure that reading, writing, and the arts remain a primary component of the education of young American citizens.
Wynn Handman’s awards included CCNY’s Townsend Harris Medal (its highest honor), the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award, New Federal Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award, an Honorary Doctorate from 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 Theatre,” a Margo Jones Award to a “citizen-of-the-theatre who has demonstrated a significant impact, understanding and affirmation of the craft of playwriting, with a lifetime commitment to the encouragement of the living theatre everywhere,” a Carnegie Mellon Commitment to Playwriting award and a Working Theatre Sanford Meisner Service Award for “leadership in disseminating the arts to working people.” On May 19, 2020, the Off-Broadway Alliance named Handman a “legend of Off-Broadway.”
His life and career have been documented in “Wynn Place Show: A Biased History of the Rollicking Life & Extreme Times of Wynn Handman and The American Place Theatre” by Jeremy Gerard (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).