Now more than ever, free speech lives at Theatre 80

Defying picketers, Lorcan Otway recently hosted a panel discussion at his East Village theater featuring provocative author Gilad Atzmon, who has been attacked by critics as a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite. Photo by Sarah Ferguson

BY LORCAN OTWAY | Over these past several weeks, online, I have been called a sellout and a whore and my theater, Theatre 80 Saint Mark’s — a commercial public accommodation open to all — was picketed for accepting a request to rent the space for an open forum with audience questions.

There were four panelists, and some protesters said that one was a “Jew hater” a “Holocaust denier” and a nazi. All the panelists were, in fact, Jewish.

In the weeks leading up to the panel event, I pointed out to the objectors that our policy was not to censor the speech of those who rent out the theater. I would not do to our renters that which was done to my father during the McCarthy era, a time much like today.

Today, the government’s executive branch has made war on empirical truth. It has sought to deny our nation’s people the right to be informed, so that they can make up their own minds. Our government has crippled the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency and sought to limit how much NASA scientists can inform the people on what they need to know to be educated voters.

I reminded those who called my decision a “sellout” that Dr. King said, countless times, that protest was intended to be disruptive, in order to get a seat at the table, to take part in the discussion and achieve rights. However, King did not protest in order to exclude others with whom he had disagreements. The objectors’ response was a repetition of their initial point, peppered with obscenities.

I won’t comment on the degree to which any of the charges against one of the speakers, Gilad Atzmon, were supportable, other than to recall the reactions when Bernie Sanders said that he believed in a two-state solution to the Palestine / Israel issue: Half my friends called Sanders a “Zionist,” the other half, a “self-hating Jew.” It’s all the more reason for civil discourse, in my estimation.

Free speech lives in the commercial side of Theatre 80. There is another side of my life in theater. For the past 52 years, first my parents and then I have offered the theater to the community for events or theatrical productions that could not afford to rent. Lately, the war on small businesses, which has closed so many old establishments, made this generosity a threat to our existence. So, my wife and I formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Howard Otway and Florence Otway Opportunity Project (HOFOPRO), which honors my parents’ commitment to our community. Through HOFOPRO, we have been able to ask for help in bringing the kind of transformative art to our stage that was core to establishing the renaissance of the 1960s and early ’70s. Today the progress we made during that renaissance is evaporating, and with it, perhaps, humanity’s hope of survival.

HOFOPRO took a great leap of faith in the people of this neighborhood, inviting the Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. (NEC) to make a home at Theatre 80, beginning a season of some of that company’s most important, transformative works from their early years. The first three of NEC’s plays performed at Theatre 80 have received remarkable reviews, acknowledging this company’s importance in these days of division and ignorance. That leap of faith, however, has yet to be supported by New Yorkers, as no contributions have yet been made to fund the NEC at Theatre 80, other than my own.

Those who picketed our theater, who sought not to address with fact and reason those with whom they disagree with and hate, have called for an attack on our funding. David McReynolds, the legendary peace activist, addressed this issue, saying that Villager contributor Bill Weinberg “…does not seem to get the simple fact that by trying to close down this site for Gilad [saying he is free to speak anywhere — but not here], he has taken the first step to saying Gilad should not be allowed to speak anywhere. I believe in that now-most-unpopular thing — free speech. And I ask Bill to realize that, by his attacks, he could help undercut the financial support of Theatre 80 St. Mark’s.”

Weinberg’s response: “Theatre 80 hosted the Nazi. I suggest you take this concern for the theater’s future funding to Lorcan.”

I think it is time to put a stop to the tactic of excluding voices rather than engaging in civil discourse. The advantage in meeting what you believe to be ignorance with fact, is that your point is made stronger in the public forum. Those who suppress debate often lose in the court of public opinion.

I think we are safe in saying that if those who oppose a no-censorship policy succeed in their attack on our funding, the result will not advantage progressive free speech, but rather an institution being taken from the people and given to the handful of developers who now own most of our neighborhood. I doubt these developers would do what we have done, such as giving a forum, free of charge, to Lynne Stewart, when she was being prosecuted in the early days of the government’s spreading fear to gain support for ruinous wars; or offering the theater for free for a benefit concert to raise money for the victims of the Second Ave. gas explosion two years ago, or a screening of a film on the environment.

In fact, if the developers swooped in, I doubt there would be any public use of this space to the neighborhood’s advantage. We need to build a better America, defined by love of the process of liberty, rather than defined by the building of walls of separation based on fear of perceived enemies.

Otway is owner, Theatre 80 St. Mark’s