For 50-some years, Wynn Handman taught actors on the Midtown block of West 56th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Now, following a ceremony on September 12 with remarks from Council Member Keith Powers and former Mayor Bill de Blasio, a street sign there boasts his name.
The location couldn’t be more apt. “It’s such a part of our lives and it’s so central in the theater world,” said Laura Handman, Wynn’s daughter and a prominent First Amendment lawyer.
Handman began teaching in 1955, working out of a carriage house for nearly three decades before moving to an artist studio in Carnegie Hall. He served as the co-founder and artistic director of The American Place Theatre and over the course of his career instructed the likes of Alec Baldwin, Mia Farrow and Denzel Washington, plus many, many more.
“Every student you ever talked to, including the ones that were there” at the street naming ceremony, Laura Handman told Our Town, “said, ‘He changed my life.’” In the spring of 2020, her father passed away due to COVID-19-related pneumonia. He’d taught up until the month before he became ill, only closing his doors to New York’s actors as the city began to adopt pandemic precautions.
“He Wasn’t Afraid”
In May, Wynn Handman’s family hosted a memorial at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side attended by around 800 people (plus an additional roughly 400 streaming online); the performance-filled event lasted four hours, Laura Handman said. The day before the street naming ceremony, she and others scattered his ashes in sentimental locations around the city, including in Inwood, where her father grew up, and at the “Imagine” mosaic in Central Park, where two benches are dedicated to Handman and his late wife.
The street naming, Powers explained at the event, was in large part thanks to de Blasio’s efforts. “The mayor called me and asked me to do this,” he said, “and I knew what Wynn represented to this area, to the city.”
De Blasio described Handman as optimistic and forward-thinking. “Wynn shaped the culture of this city, and in so many ways, of this nation” he said, later adding that “he wasn’t afraid to experiment, he wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries, he wasn’t afraid to bring new people, new voices, new faces to the stage.”
Many of Handman’s students turned out for the event, Laura Handman said. “Some of the most remarkable theater in New York City took place in his classrooms,” said Billy Lyons, who directed the 2019 Netflix documentary “It Takes a Lunatic,” which tells Handman’s story.
A Living Legacy
But his teachings weren’t limited to the world of theater. “My dad telling me to project and to inhabit the role are things that are very useful for lawyers when they’re in court,” Laura Handman said. (Note: Handman is Straus News’ First Amendment lawyer.)
Now, she hopes the new street sign will attract passersby to records of her father’s legacy, like “It Takes a Lunatic” and the book “Wynn Place Show: A Biased History of the Rollicking Life & Extreme Times of Wynn Handman and The American Place Theatre.”
“His students will all flock there over time and be reminded of the good times they had on that street or with dad in his classes and in the theater, going to the plays he put on, which were very challenging and pioneering and ahead of their time,” Laura Handman said. “But then I think people walking by will say, ‘Oh, what’s Wynn Handman Way?’ And they’ll Google — and they’ll find a lot about him.”
“Wynn shaped the culture of this city, and in so many ways, of this nation.” Bill de Blasio