THE HISTORY OF THE THEATRE, unlike film, is preserved largely through the memories of those who made it and witnessed it, so we are grateful for the occasional book that manages to gather up those memories and shape them into a compelling narrative worthy of the medium itself. Such a book is Wynn Place Show, Jeremy Gerard’s history of The American Place Theatre and its iconoclastic impresario, Wynn Handman. (Smith and Kraus, 227 pp.) Here is the account, in chapter and verse, of Handman’s determination to uncover new forms and new talent in a contemporary theatre removed from the commercial pressures of Broadway beginning in 1963 and continuing for more than 40 years. My god, the work he unleashed! Sam Shepard, Eric Bogosian, Bill Irwin, Maria Irene Fornes, Joel Grey, Olympia Dukakis and Richard Gere are just a few of the hundreds of notable artists who found their voices here in ground-breaking productions made possible by Handman’s nurturing personality and unrelenting spirit of adventure. A gifted acting teacher and director, as well as producer, he got plays from poets and novelists, monologues, adaptations, pieces that could not be readily described.
A distinguished critic and reporter, Gerard explains how this all happened, recreating the period with stories of individual shows and remembrances of Handman supplied by the illustrious APT alumni, as well as through his own recollections as a first-nighter. For anyone who recalls that time in New York and elsewhere when theatre suddenly could be anything and everything and was up for grabs, this is a very good read indeed, even as it leaves you wondering along with Sam Shepard where all that passion went. A keen observer of the press, Gerard also keeps one eye peeled on New York’s most influential critics and how they met the challenge of sifting and interpreting ATP’s unconventional fare. A subplot but one that supplies its own bonus material.
For a variety of reasons, including his “tacking against the mainstream winds,” as Gerard puts it, Handman and his theatre never got the full measure of recognition they deserved for the careers they helped launch and the lively intelligence they cultivated. It seems they have now.