A known lunatic in the theater world with a purpose and a passion is none other than the famous acting teacher and co-founder/director of The American Place Theater, Wynn Handman. At the age of 97, Handman is still teaching as many classes as he did in the beginning of his theater career, using his genuine, outspoken and no holds barred approach to helping his students find their voices and the truth to who they are both on and off the stage. Truth is what he is all about because in his mind and the way he lives, truth can't be beat.
In 1962, the American Place Theater opened for the purpose of bringing voices (both subjects and people's stories) needing to be heard to the stage. This helped to establish the Off-Broadway theater community, "a champion of the unheard." Handman was a man with a mission and successfully influenced scores of actors over decades. The main reason his theater survived was because if was funded through subscriptions. It was a non-profit theater. So those who donated, paid their subscriptions because they wanted to see controversial, ground-breaking Off-Broadway theater. In this sense, Handman didn't have to deal with the commercialism that even today New York City theaters must.
Actor, director, teacher and producer Billy Lyons was the close assistant to Wynn Handman for many years. Lyons' documentary It Takes a Lunatic takes the film audience on a journey of discovery of how Handman became such a profound influence on so many famous actors and playwrights, such as Sam Shepard, Richard Gere, James Caan, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman, Joel Grey, Michael Douglas, Frank Langella, Susan Lucci and Chris Cooper, to name a few. Lyons’ film is a love letter celebrating Handman's life and showcasing his unique style of teaching that was revered by anyone who allowed him to show them the way to be a better person and, if his advice was taken, they'd eventually be a better performer.
Lyons captures Handman's life achievements in many areas from 1949 to the present. This includes time in the Navy, his marriage, family and an on-going career. Handman had a similar experience as Lyons, in that Handman learned from and was an assistant to Sandy Meiser at The Neighborhood Playhouse.
Lyons could not be better suited to describing Handman's remarkable work ethic. As a teacher, it's Handman's enthusiasm, his good will, humor, generosity and his flexibility that is important to help talent achieve greatness. Lyons and others comment on the fact that Handman is the ideal acting teacher. He creates a safe place to fail and succeed. He's not egotistical or frightening but instead makes fear disappear. He takes strides to encourage, and to comfort and does so with his wisdom and calmness. He is a nurturer and wants his students to succeed.
In an article written by Carole Di Totsi for the New York City Skyline, she shares a remarkable story of Handman's influence abroad. She begins, "In 1969 Handman produced George Tabori's The Cannibals a Holocaust play which received a cool reception because the audience didn't understand the piece as black comedy." She continues, "Tabori's play went on to be produced at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin where it received an incredible reception and outpouring of support because the Germans needed to deal with elements of the Holocaust." Adding, "Tabori, a Hungarian Jew who swore he would never return to Berlin ended up moving there and becoming a vital force in German Theater. From the reception of this work, Tabori ended up renowned and won various awards."
An enriching Q & A session after the screening began and ended with an audience standing ovation for Handman as the theater was full of his former and current students. It was an honor to observe.