Sam McCready Interview
Including Show Preview • A Time To Speak plays at The Lyric from the 03 – 07 May.
By Conor O’Neill • Photography: Clinton Brandhagen / Stanley Matchett
Sam McCready, artist, educator, author, playwright, actor, director and is still full of beans at 80. Theatre lovers will probably already know Sam and wife Joan are due back to our shores in May for another run of A Time To Speak.
Adapted from Helen Lewis’s true story of surviving the holocaust, Sam says, “I met Helen in 1956 when I joined the Lyric Players Theatre. We formed a close personal relationship and I was among the first with whom she shared intimate details of her story. Helen had her Auschwitz number tattooed on her arm but we paid little attention to it. One evening, she was getting her car filled with petrol and she leant her arm out the window and the young attendant remarked what a good idea it was to have her telephone number tattooed on her arm. When Helen came to rehearsal that night she was distressed and for the first time spoke to us about the holocaust and her incarceration. I visited her often at her home on many occasions and she elaborated on the details; indeed, I was one of the first she read the first chapters of her book to. Originally it was written as a series of letters to her grandchildren and she would ask me ‘Is that all right? Should I mention that?’; in post-show discussions we hear more details of the atrocities and this intensifies our commitment to tell Helen’s story and ensure the Holocaust is never forgotten.”
On turning 80 last year I ask how he keeps his energy up, and his reply is simple, “I loved turning 80. It wasn’t just another day; it was the beginning of another adventure. On that special day I wrote myself a postcard which said ‘I met old age on the road and he said ‘Welcome to my world!’. Sam continues, ‘And what is your world I asked?’ ‘Stiffening joints, memory loss, dimming eyes, second childhood, mere oblivion.’ I laughed and walked the other way.”
As to his relentless work ethic he says, “I am bored when I’m doing nothing; I work 10 to 12 hours per day, either writing or painting and when I can I spend an hour in the gym. I have been acting since I performed on the Children’s Hour in the late 1940s. I’m principally known as an actor and writer but I trained as a painter at Stranmillis College and the Belfast College of Art. After I retired from my professorship at the University of Maryland I felt a void and I returned to my art. Each day my fingers itch to put something on paper, whether in words or paint and when that’s not possible, I feel frustrated and negative.”
Feeling crafty I venture the question how he and Joan’s working relationship goes and do the wedding rings get removed at the theatre door? “When I met Joan almost 60 years ago I was blessed. Together we embarked on a life that has brought us wonderful pleasures, rich experiences and countless friends. She is a remarkable woman, generous, caring and understanding, whose major concern at all times has been the welfare and support of our children and me. She is a tower of quiet strength and deep sensitivity, the same qualities she brings to her acting. There is no show with Joan and this is a quality she shared with Helen Lewis. We know each other to the core and this forms the basis of a trust which is what any actor works to develop with another actor”.
“When it comes to productions, I write the plays and Joan edits them and has a strong hand in the final text. When we rehearse, we leave, as you aptly said, the wedding rings at the door and attempt to become a fully professional duo, each aware of his or her role as actor and director. We never really fight, in rehearsals or real life, something our friend Martin Lynch marvels at. Many times he’s asked, ‘Sam do Joan and you never fight? How do you do it?’ The answer: a lifetime of living, loving and trusting.”
Moving to the US in 1984, CultureHUB asks for his opinion of life in America? “I have a love-hate relationship with the place, but I’ve put down roots here and that makes it difficult to leave. I have another home in Belfast that is always calling me back but I have to say, ‘Catch yourself on, you have a quality life here, you live in an idyllic neighbourhood with the best neighbours you could wish for. You have a son and a granddaughter here who value you, you’re as happy as Larry here.’”
“Belfast has changed since I lived there, friends have moved on and I have moved on as well. The smallness and parochialism of Belfast is sometimes tiresome and I just want to say to people, ‘Would you look outside your shores and what a quality of life is possible if you gave up those prejudices, the narrow-mindedness, and allowed others to live as they chose.’ That’s what is so wonderful about the US. People as a whole respect ‘the other,’ they don’t question your religion, your political affiliation, your sexual orientation … at the same time I’m in despair about the current political situation. While the majority of my friends are liberals, the last election has shown whole areas of deep conservatism of a variety that is exclusive and in contradiction to the values of those Americans I know well.”
On the new Lyric, which has many fans but a few detractors, Sam says, “I was involved with The Lyric from the beginning and my heart and sweat is in that theatre. I was never disloyal to it. The present Lyric is doing a fine job; the programming has some range and a wider public is now engaged than when the theatre was first built in Ridgeway Street in the late 60s. It has been moving on and rightly so. But when the new building was erected, there appears to have been a determined effort to erase the past, possibly because to some, the past was associated with Mary O’Malley’s national leanings. I regret that that appears to have happened. The new main stage of the theatre should have been called the Mary O’Malley; she put her blood, guts and money into the place. Her contribution to The Lyric needs to be more fully acknowledged; perhaps that might happen when the agenda of the current theatre has been more established.”
And what next for Sam McCready? “I have been working on an adaptation of the memoir No Surrender by an important but now little known Ulster writer, Robert Harrison. I plan to perform it as a one-man show at the Eastside Arts Festival in August. It’s a brilliant piece and I can’t wait to share it with Ulster Audiences.”
And there we go, a man as happy and as busy in life as one could hope for. A Time To Speak plays at The Lyric from the 03 – 07 May. To book tickets, visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or phone the box office on 02890 381081.