Censorship, theatre and cash: Sam McCready discovers that true success is a state of mind
It's the closing question, almost an afterthought, that brings the fireball response. Like a man hit with a dart, Sam McCready's eyes open and his face widens.
'Mary O’Malley is the most overlooked person in this part of the world and I think it’s a disgrace that that woman is being written out. The Lyric Theatre is here today as a testament to her energy. But it was not just a theatre: there was a drama school, a youth theatre, literary magazine Threshold and its list of contributors - there are few magazines in the world that would have as many major Irish writers.'
Sam McCready is premiering New York State Of Mind in Belfast. The performances follow a career spent between New York and NI in which the writer, teacher and director has seen everything that the frequently cut-throat world of professional theatre has to offer.
In Luciano's at The Baby Grand, The Verve's 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' strikes up. In its time, that song was a fusion of the old and new, a classic motif given a modern spin. It's a dramatic soundtrack to the conversation, the classical swoops setting the mood. It was those strings, though, that prevented the band from making even a penny from the song, even when it hit #2 in the UK chart. Instead The Rolling Stones added a few more pounds to their pile.
'There was a music academy, Irish Handcrafts on the the Grosvenor Road,' McCready continues. 'With gold, silver, fabric, earthernware, and above it an art gallery run by Alice Berger Hammerschlag. Any of these activities alone would have been a major achievement because O'Malley was working in a politically, totally divided community.
'She came from Cork, and was involved in politics, initially, because there was nothing for her to do. She was a socialist. She also believed that the border was inappropriate and therefore, when the national anthem was played she refused to stand. That reputation got out, and from then on anybody associated with her was thought to be intent on a united Ireland and taking down the border. She had to work, constantly, with that kind of barrier.'
McCready's own achievements were recognised as early as 1967 when he was named Best Director in the Ulster Drama Finals. Leaving Belfast in 1984 and returning after an accomplished time spent directing off-broadway, his position as an observer of Northern Ireland's theatrical history is unique - a history from which figures like Mary O'Malley are being erased.
'She tried to buy land for the new Lyric Theatre. People look at The Lyric and say "Yes, it's terrific. The Arts Council must have put that up." No way. Every plot of land O'Malley went after was withdrawn from sale the moment it was realised that she wanted to buy it. Her first place was at Shaw’s Bridge, the ideal site, and yet at the last moment that was withdrawn.
'At every point she was fighting a unionist-dominated council for all kinds of permissions that were needed to build. But even with the Catholic Church there were certain people within the theatre group who passed plays to the local priest to read before they would actually take part in them.
'Take, for example, The House Of Bernarda Alba, Lorca's play. He said no. And when we were doing the first Irish production of Under Milkwood, there was a television production of it on the week we were due to open.
'The priest in St Bride's stood up - in the course of his sermon - saying 'I understand that a number of you are involved in this production. It is immoral.' There were children from the drama school in it, and I was one of three teachers. The children were withdrawn, and a number of the Catholic members of the cast withdrew.
'A number of those children never came back to the drama school. So it wasn’t just one side of the society. O'Malley was battling in what was truly, by that stage, a cultural desert.'
Once inside the Grand Opera House's Glengall Street stage door, there's a reception resembling a car-rental agents. A clean space, organised and efficient. Walking the corridors leading towards front-of-house you can see what goes on, quite literally, behind the curtains. The raw mechanics of the thing, the wood, the metal, the effort. If a performance blossoms, it is from this root of background industry.
When it opened, The Baby Grand caused some to mumble that its style wasn't in keeping with the feel of the original building, that it was out of place, that it cost too much. But unveiled almost 100 years after the original, its existence alone can be read as a mark of progress, of faith and investment.
The pastel blocks and bold, modular design contrasts with the terrocotta classicism of the main house. Like the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, though, discourse about the exterior of the building is in danger of detracting from the activity inside. For McCready, The Baby Grand is the natural place to premiere New York State of Mind.
'The play is about Belfast people. It's set in Belfast, in this environment, with the kinds of attitudes people have here,' he says. 'For me this is home. This is coming home. I love being with my own people, and being celebrated by my own people.' The comment is humble, almost reluctant.
'With so much of my work I’ve thought 'I wish people could see what I’ve done.' That hasn’t happened. Opening in Belfast gives people the opportunity to see what I’ve been doing, in this case as a writer.'
New York State of Mind isn't, according to McCready, an autobiographical play, although there are key similarities (a young Ulster actor leaves 1980s Belfast for The Big Apple) to his own life. The core dynamic is one of geographical contrast, and the principal meditation is on the nature of success.
'My experience of New York itself, working with New York actors and getting involved with the New York theatre scene was... quite a shock. I’ve wanted to write about that experience and this play manages to do both.
'A young Ulster actor is invited to New York in 1984 for a part in a play about the Troubles. He’s celebrated and through him we see New York and the theatre world. At the same time, he leaves his wife and three kids back in Belfast, and we see the quality of life they have with the bombings, and the stress on a woman having to look after three children on her own.'
The red thread binding the geographical ping-pong is the character played by Harry Towb, the Co Antrim veteran who can list appearances in Casualty, Heartbeat and Dr Who, as well as Sherlock Holmes, Moll Flanders and The Bill, on his CV.
'In the play there’s an older actor who has been through the Ulster Theatre, from the early days at the group. He has had some success in television, and now has come to the end of a career... so he’s sharing all the experiences of what the Ulster Theatre was like for him. He’s not a household name but he has done good work, he has been honest in his work and so, we set up the dialogue about attitudes to success.'
There is a concilitory tone to the speech, but McCready does not lament not having acquired vast material wealth. As he condenses the story there is, however, a hint of romance and remembrance in his eyes. McCready is both men: old enough to have acquired a certain wisdom, but not to have forgotten brash, youthful desire.
'A young man today wants Hollywood. He wants the big house, the swimming pool, three cars... whereas for the older guy it’s ‘what did you bring to what you were doing, to your art? How were you enriched as a person?' It's not judged in financial terms.
'I look at people around me. The Pete Dochertys, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, and see that this success destroys them, because they can’t deal with it. I’ve worked with actors who have done very very well, and I’ve worked with actors who were extremely talented but allowed to the lifestyle to get in the way. They became big-headed, and are forgotten.
'The play has enabled me to bring together these very important parts of my life and feed them through these characters. It’s not autobiographical, but everything in the play is something that I have shared, and observed, and been part of.'
An easy presumption is that bigger cities have brighter lights than Belfast, that young actors or writers are wise to leave their homeland to avail themselves of the opportunities offered by Manchester, London or NY. McCready's experience frames Belfast slightly differently. It becomes a place where you have fine venues and can reach an audience without having to make too many concessions to capital or face pre-emptive attacks from critics.
'New York Theatre is a barbaric world,' says McCready, with an almost audible shudder. 'It is cruel. It is cut-throat. It relies on making money, getting money to put the show on, and satisfying those who have given you the money so that they get a return. They’re basically gamblers.
'People in Belfast go to a betting shop to bet on the horse or the greyhounds or the dogs - over there, there is an elite who put their money into theatre. But they demand a return, and I saw the cruelty of that. I had limited control over who was actually cast in plays. I sat there at auditions, auditioning for three, four days non-stop until my eyes were glazed over. If I saw one more blond-haired, good-looking muscled fellow I would have dropped. I was dying to see a skinny guy, big ears... the same with the women, they all looked alike.
'I had a lot of success, but it was too much for me emotionally. I was invited to take a professorship at the University of Maryland. That’s been terrific, I have a wonderful life there and I’ve been able to keep my New York stuff going but... I ran away. I ran away because it was just too much.'
For McCready, opening New York State of Mind in Belfast brings a different kind of reward. In an arts world that relies heavily on subsidy and funding over private investment, successes are on a smaller scale and humble, with personal rather than monetary rewards. In McCready's experience it is individual graft and the calibre of the work that counts.
'One of the things that America has taught me is that people should go out and work for themselves. The idea that there's somebody there to hand money to you all the time... as far as I’m concered I have to earn that. I have to bring that audience in. I don’t want anyone to get money for nothing and I don’t want the taxpayer to be handing out money for nothing.
'But at the same time the arts must be subsidised. Those in the arts must use that subsidy to do quality work and not see it as an opportunity to do mediocre stuff.'
When The Verve performed 'Bitter Sweet Symphony', fans often heckled disapproval - not at the band, but at how they had been treated: stripped of a certain success. Rather than reacting with spite or scorn, frontman Richard Ashcroft responded with 'Don't boo, man. As long as I can play the song, I'm happy.' McCready leaves Luciano's, exiting though the glass foyer onto Great Victoria Street. Walking towards Howard St his head is tilted just skywards, enough to keep the shadows from his face.
'New York State of Mind' opens at The Baby Grand, Belfast, September 19-29.