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Play to Wynn

Legendary director and acting teacher Wynn Handman celebrates his 85th birthday and the 45th anniversary of The American Place Theatre. logo
Wynn Handman
(© John Wegorzewski/Alchimia)
"I have had a very full life in the theater, and I don't feel I'm in any way past tense," says Wynn Handman, the legendary director and acting teacher who turns 85 this month. That milestone -- as well the 45th anniversary of The American Place Theatre, which Handman co-founded in 1962 -- will be honored on Monday, May 21 at the Hudson Theater with a gala tribute titled Wynn, Place & Show.

The evening will feature a specially created performance piece written by Jonathan Reynolds and directed by Ed Sherin. On hand will be a number of actors and other theater artists who were either trained by Handman or got their start at the American Place, including Alec Baldwin, Eric Bogosian, Phyllis Newman, Dael Orlandersmith, Doris Roberts, Tony Roberts, Marian Seldes, and Sam Shepard.

TheaterMania recently spoke with Handman, who remains the artistic director of American Place, about his long and illustrious career.


THEATERMANIA: When did you first realize you wanted to make theater your life's work?

WYNN HANDMAN: I was in the naval service in World War II. I was 21 years old and an officer on a ship in the North Atlantic. Things were tense, so I started memorizing monologues from records and entertaining my shipmates with them. I remember one by Dwight Fiske about Mr. Pettibone; the line went, "And out stepped Mr. Pettibone, just as naked as a child, and twice as cocky." My shipmates loved it. After the war was over, I wondered what to do with my life. I had four years on the G.I. Bill, so I thought, "Why don't I go to acting school?"

TM: So you went and studied with Sanford Meisner?

WH: As soon as I got to Sandy's classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, I felt more alive than I had felt doing anything ever in my life. Soon, I was assisting him. Sandy always encouraged me to teach and direct. I just wanted to be an actor, but I ended up as his only assistant, beginning in 1950. I was there for five years and also started to freelance direct. When my first child was born in December 1951, Sandy started me on the professional classes because I needed more money than I was earning at the Playhouse.

TM: How did the American Place Theatre come about?

WH: I started conceiving the idea for it around 1960. I wanted to create a theater that would seek out American writers of quality and get them to write plays. I met Sydney Lanier, an Episcopal priest associated with St. Clement's Church, who wanted to incorporate arts as part of its services and for the church to be a mission to the arts. I also had a friend named Michael Tolan, an actor, and the three of us launched the American Place Theatre at St. Clement's.

Frank Langella and Roscoe Lee Brown
in The Old Glory
(© The American Place Theatre)
TM: What were the early days of the organization like?

WH: Probably the most important play we did was our first one, The Old Glory, by Robert Lowell. It had Frank Langella -- who was my acting student -- and Roscoe Lee Brown. Everyone was so Broadway-minded at the time. The agent who gave me that script made me take a vow of silence that she had given it to me, because they had a long list of Class-A producers for Broadway. After a year, I spoke to the agent and said, "I'm going to see Robert Lowell again pretty soon and I can't just keep my mouth shut." She said, "You don't have to anymore; everyone's turned it down." That validated why I was starting the American Place; it was designed to be an alternative to the commercial theater, so that high quality writing for the theater would not go to waste because it didn't make it as a commercial production for Broadway.

TM: One of the things I admire most about you and the work that the American Place Theatre has produced is your commitment to a diverse array of American voices.

WH: I had on my brochures, "I just want to put voices worth hearing on the stage, regardless of ethnic origin," and it turned out there were many wonderful voices worth hearing that came my way. We did plays by Maria Irene Fornes, Steve Tesich, Frank Chin, and six or seven of the early ones by Sam Shepard, as well as Ed Bullins' first professional production and Anne Sexton's only play. I'm also very proud of the solo performers that came out of my studio. I directed Eric Bogosian in Drinking in America. John Leguizamo's Mambo Mouth grew out of my class. I loved doing Dael Oerlandersmith's work early on. Aasif Mandvi was a student of mine who started bringing in characters; that became Sakina's Restaurant, which I love.

TM: The American Place Theatre has undergone a number of changes in its time. I was sad to see it move out of its West 46th Street complex, which now houses the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. What happened?

WH: That was built for us under a special law which was passed in the Lindsay administration to preserve live theater in the Midtown district because, for real estate profit, theaters were being torn down. It was all built to my specifications. I got my own architect, brought in my scenic designer, and we created that theater. I left St. Clement's after 10 years there and was at that space on West 46th Street for 30 years. I had three more years on my lease, and I paid no rent -- that's how the city made it very achievable to keep the theater going. But then the Roundabout came along and offered a lot of money, and I was told the city wouldn't renew the lease. No one ever came to me and even asked if I had the money.

TM: But you're okay with how things have worked out?

WH. I'm very happy to be doing the Literature to Life program, which is the sole focus of the American Place now. We take novels from American writers and excerpt from them, and do it for students. It's not a reading; it's fully memorized. One actor inhabits all the characters and has to do every aspect of what makes good acting to make them come alive.

TM: How did that program begin?

WH: One of my students, Tonya Little, started to bring characters from The Bluest Eye, the Toni Morrison novel, to class. I said I could do it as a production. Just at that time, Toni won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and her agent was not communicating with us. So Tonya took it upon herself to go down to Princeton, where Toni teaches, and intercept her on the first day of school. It was a blizzard, but she met with Toni, who said: "Well, I have good feelings and admire Wynn and the American Place, but my agent thinks that because I just won the Nobel Prize, anything I wrote is worth a million dollars. So she's not going to give you the rights. But I tell you what, if you want to do it for students, you don't have a box office, and you don't publicize it, go ahead." That's how we started "Literature to Life."

TM: Even though you're no longer actively searching out new plays, what's your opinion of the American theatrical landscape now?

WH: There was a time when I was the only game in town. Now, there's a proliferation of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theaters. I didn't do plays so that they would go to Broadway; only one did, Cold Storage by Ronald Ribman, and that was surprising. I've nothing against Broadway, but I don't tend to do plays that are deemed to have mass appeal. What has changed is that many of the Off-Broadway institutions are now the feed for Broadway. Mine was meant to be the alternative.

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