Sam McCready's New York State of Mind

After years of success in America, the acclaimed director returns to Belfast

When Sam McCready left Ulster to direct off-Broadway in 1984, he couldn't have imagined what the next 20 years would bring. After success in New York, a professorship in Maryland and productions of Shakespeare, Yeats and Brecht, McCready is premiering his new play, New York State Of Mind, at the Baby Grand. What informed the decision to swap NY for NI?

'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 to his own life. The core dynamic is one of geographical contrast, and the principal meditation is on the nature of success.

'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.

The achievements of McCready's younger days were recognised as early as 1967 when he was named Best Director in the Ulster Drama Finals. His position as an observer of Northern Ireland's theatrical history is unique, and has an acute understanding of the highs and lows that a life in theatre can bring.

'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 horses 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.'

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 LA, 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, face pre-emptive attacks from critics or watch the often destructive effects of success.

'I look at people around me. The Pete Dohertys, Lindsay Lohans 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.

'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.'

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.'

With that line delivered, McCready exits the front-of-house and steps out on to Great Victoria Street. With his head tilted toward Belfast's sky, mediocrity is the last thing on his mind.