Belfast Festival: A Time To Speak

Director and actress duo Sam and Joan McCready on bringing dancer Helen Lewis's Holocaust survival memoir to the stage. Click Play Audio for a podcast interview

In 1992 a remarkable book was published by Belfast's Blackstaff Press. It has sold millions of copies and been translated into many languages, including Czech, the second language of its author.

A Time to Speak was written by Helen Lewis, a survivor of Auschwitz, who found her way to Belfast when the war ended. She married her childhood friend Harry and established the Belfast School of Modern Dance.

Just when it was thought that everything that could have been said or written about the Holocaust had been said or written, Lewis’s cool, dispassionate, intensely humane memoir provided yet another unique personal testimony. This time it came from the point of view of a much-loved only child of an affluent family, who chose not to go to university but instead to become a dancer.

A Time to SpeakMoving from her home town of Trutnov in the German-speaking Sudetenland to Prague, Lewis learned Czech and embarked on what would have been a glittering career in modern dance. But her artistic ambitions were cut short when she, her young husband Paul and her mother - neither of whom survived - were rounded up and taken to the Terezin camp.

Thus began the first of a terrible sequence of events, which ended in Lewis's survival of the notorious ‘death march’, the gruelling trek across the wintry wastes of northern Europe ahead of the advance of the Russian Army in January 1945.

Lewis has repeated the assertion that dance saved her life. Whether it was in an effort to keep her spirits high on arriving at Terezin - 'I spend my first morning in Terezin dancing on the ramparts...' - or being co-opted, in 1944, to help with a Christmas performance for the authorities, which diverted from her being loaded onto the lorry leaving for the gas chambers.

Director Sam McCready and his actress wife Joan have known Helen Lewis for over 50 years. They were all part of the gilded circle of performers and artists gathered together by Mary O’Malley to form her original Lyric Players company. And while they have stayed in close contact with their friends from those days, for over 20 years the McCreadys have been based in the United States, where Sam believes he has done some of his best work.

'I was approached by an off-Broadway producer, who invited me to New York City,' he recalls. 'I had never had any interest in going there, but the first time I walked down a New York street I felt at home in a foreign country. This, I felt was a land of opportunity, a place where I could be taken seriously. I never felt that in London or even Dublin.'

McCready worked with well known actors like Kevin Spacey and Milo O’Shea, but was struck by the thought that, on the whole, American actors were not well trained. He grabbed the opportunity to take up a post as professor of drama at the University of Maryland, where he has had the financial and creative resources to carve out what he calls 'the richest, fullest life'.

One of his closest collaborators is his wife. Together Sam and Joan have crafted a piece of theatre, inspired by and using text from A Time to Speak, which will be performed at the invitation of the Lyric on Sunday, October 18 during the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

'I read the manuscript of A Time to Speak before it was published,' he comments. 'It is an extraordinary story of a young woman who lived in Prague but who was incarcerated in various camps - and survived. There were moments when she should not have survived, when, instead of turning one way and going into the gas chambers, she turns the other way and nobody notices. With Helen’s cooperation, we began to work on this piece for Joan.'

Both have been at tremendous pains to retain the spirit of truth of their friend’s remarkable journey.

'I’m certainly not imitating Helen,' remarks Joan. 'But I hope I do become that woman, who survived miraculously a number of times. While I tell the story there are moments which become extremely vivid, which take over the actress and come into the present tense. In researching the piece, Sam and I visited most of the places from Helen’s past – her home town of Trutnov, the camps at Terezin and Auschwitz.'

But there is one simple element which takes centre stage in the production. 'Helen was a dancer,' says Sam, quietly. 'It emerges that dance was present at moments at which her life was saved. So we have taken that as a theme, the way through the story. You will see a woman on stage, with no scenery, sitting telling her story. You will see dance performed on video as a counterpoint to the narrative.

'We wanted to be absolutely truthful to Helen and this is such a powerful element in her story. Put simply, dance saved her life.'

Jane Coyle

Check out Culture Live! listings for more information on A Time to Speak and other events at the 2009 Belfast Festival at Queen's.