Wynn Handman, Founder of American Place Theatre, Dies at 97

Obituaries   Wynn Handman, Founder of American Place Theatre, Dies at 97
 
Mr. Handman is the subject of the 2019 documentary film It Takes a Lunatic as well as the book WYNN PLACE SHOW.
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Wynn Handman, an acting teacher and co-founder and director of the American Place Theater, passed away April 11 at the age of 97. Upon opening in 1963, the American Place—both a dedicated education space and a producer of new plays by living American writers—was one of the pillars of the Off-Broadway scene. Writers who have premiered their work there include Sam Shepard, Ed Bullins, poets Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, and Joyce Carol Oates.

An acting teacher well into his 90s, Mr. Handman was an influence on thousands of performers—among them, former students Richard Gere, James Caan, Joel Grey, Denzel Washington, Michael Douglas, Mia Farrow, Allison Janney, Frank Langella, and Chris Cooper. One of his students, who also worked as his assistant, Billy Lyons, would go on to make the documentary It Takes A Lunatic, seen at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 (and now on Netflix), providing a heartfelt look at Mr. Handman as a teacher and human being.

Jeremy Gerard and Wynn Handman
Jeremy Gerard and Wynn Handman

Mr. Handman's career and influence is also documented in Jeremy Gerard's WYNN PLACE SHOW: A Biased History of the Rollicking Life and Extreme Times of Wynn Handman and The American Place Theatre. Part oral history, the book documents the significance of ATP as well as a seminal time for the American theatre. Among those who contributed to the text are APT alums Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Morgan Freeman, Roscoe Lee Browne, Marian Seldes, Bill Irwin, Olympia Dukakis, and John Leguizamo.

"I was a child of Off-Off-Broadway when I began venturing uptown to St. Clements in the late 1960s, where Wynn was producing shows that shocked audiences," author Gerard tells Playbill. "The plays, such as Cannibals and La Turista, were feral and in stark contrast to Wynn himself, who was so kind and supportive that often the first word I heard from the people I interviewed for WYNN PLACE SHOW was 'gentleman'."

Mr. Handman co-founded the American Place Theatre in 1963 with Sidney Lanier and Michael Tolan. Originally located at Saint Clement's Church on West 46th Street, the nonforprofit organization officially opened in 1964 with a production of The Old Glory, a trilogy of one-act plays by poet Lowell, starring Langella, Browne, and Lester Rawlins.

In 1971, APT moved to a new location on West 46th (now Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre), a move that also marked the beginning of the theatre's mission to broaden its programming and audience. Over the next few years, the company would launch two significant programs: the American Humorists' Series in 1974 and The Women's Project in 1978. Founded by APT Associate Director Julia Miles, the Women's Project (now WP Theater) would go on to become a landmark producer of women playwrights, as well as a launchpad for women directors.

In 1994, APT began the Literature to Life program, a performance-based literacy program that presented professionally staged verbatim adaptations (by Mr. Handman's acting students) of significant American literary works—the first was an adaptation of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Other performances included The Secret Life of Bees and The Glass Castle. By the late-1990s, the theatre's focus had shifted almost exclusively to educational programming and these Literature to Life performances for New York City public schools.

Mr. Handman was APT's artistic director, as well as the chief financial officer, positions he held until the company ceased operations (its final production was Michael Bradford's Living in the Wind, in the 2000-2001 season, though it continued to exist as an educational institution.) Alongside running the theatre and teaching, Mr. Handman directed a number productions, including the 1997 Coming Through, a play drawn from oral histories of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island that was adapted and directed by the artistic director.

According to Deadline, Mr. Handman died of complications from coronavirus. Lyons, the director of It Takes A Lunatic, shared a video of Handman on April 6, clapping for New York City's health care providers in the wake of the pandemic. He is survived by his daughters Laura Handman and Liza Handman, and their families.

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