From humble beginnings in East Belfast, Sam McCready has gone on to become one of the city’s favourite sons, making a name for himself in the world of theatre across the globe.
Renowned for his one man shows, including The Great Yeats! and Percy French: Melodies of Unforgotten Years, Sam is a founder member of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and has influenced generations of actors through his teaching both at home and in the United States.
Born in 1936, Sam grew up during the war, and when his family home in East Belfast suffered during the Blitz, they moved out to the Hillsborough countryside, where the young boy discovered his love of reading.
“My home was on the Newtownards Road and was bombed on Easter Tuesday in 1941,” revealed Sam. “My eldest sister was married that day and went to live on the Castlereagh Road. That night my mother decided we would go and try to get to my sister’s house. We were on the street and there was all these flashes. The police picked us up and brought us to the police station. I remember laying underneath the radiators as the building shook. My father was an air warden and my brothers were out at a dance. The next morning the house was practically destroyed and they thought we were inside.
“My sister’s husband had family near Hillsborough so we stayed with them while my mother went out every day to knock doors and try to find somewhere we could rent. In the end we got a home and settled there for the years of the war. I had the benefit of growing up in the country and going to a two teacher school and was given all the love and support from the community as a child. I say that experience was the catalyst for the development of who I am today.”
Throughout his childhood Sam developed his love of books and was constantly reading, often to the annoyance of his siblings. He also began acting at a young age, delighting his school friends with his Shakespearean performances.
Realising his talent, a family friend suggested he audition for Children’s Hour and during his formative years when he was just 11, 12 and 13, Sam performed in many radio pieces. At Grosvenor High School, Sam developed a passion for musical theatre, and in particular for Gilbert and Sullivan, harbouring dreams of joining the world famous Gilbert and Sullivan company D’Oyly Carte. Encouraged by a teacher, he decided to apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). However, despite being offered a place, financial concerns led to him turning down the offer. “I have had a wonderful life but it is one moment I wonder if I made the right choice,” Sam admits.
However, this was certainly not the end of his acting career, as he made a connection with the old Lyric and formed a lifelong relationship with the theatre. “It opened me up to a whole world of Irish literature,” he continued. “I knew nothing about it but in the course of my work there I was performing every night.”
As well as performing with the Lyric, Sam was also at Stranmillis College training to be a teacher. And it was whilst he was at Stranmillis that Sam met Joan, the love of his life. “At the same time a very wonderful women entered my life,” said Sam. “She had seen me at the Opera House in Gilbert and Sullivan and we very quickly formed a relationship. In March we have been married for 56 years. She is the centre of my life.”
Sam took up a job as an advertising manager but quickly realised his passion lay in the world of theatre and education so he left the corporate field and went back to teaching. “I wasn’t quite certain of what direction my life should go,” he admitted.
Sam went on to teach at Orangfield Boys High School, inspiring the next generation of writers and performers, including Brian Keenan, who was one of his students. For 10 years from 1969-1979, Sam lectured at Bangor University in Wales, where one of his students, Danny Boyle, went on to become a world famous director.
Directing in a play in America drew Sam to the attention of a producer, who was determined to bring the Belfast man to the States. “He was very excited and determined I was going to go to America to direct and I loved New York,” confessed Sam. “There was a freedom and opportunity there for you to get on if you worked hard.”
Sam was never shy of hard work but he felt he wanted to have a greater impact on the acting world and when an offer came from the University of Maryland to be a professor, he returned to teaching and shaping the next generation. He worked at the university until he retired from teaching in 2001 but although he stepped away from teaching, he certainly wasn’t ready for retirement.
Sam and his wife Joan, who is also a talented actor, playwright, and director, set up Two-for-One Productions, a touring company which specialises in small-scale productions.
Now in his 80s, Sam is determined not to slow down just yet and, despite having a busy year so far, he is also already thinking about new projects.
“I started thinking about what the last period of my life would be about and I decided I was going to reinvent myself for the last period of my life,” Sam added. “There is so much going on and I am excited by that. I will certainly not be going quietly into that good night,”
Despite being in his eighties, Sam has absolutely no intention of putting his feet up and slipping into retirement just yet.
In fact, 2018 has proved to be a very busy year for the writer, playwright and artist,
As well as writing and performing in a new one man show No Surrender, Sam has also published a book adapted from the original autobiography of Robert Harbinson with the same title. And as if writing a play, performing on stage, and publishing a book isn’t enough for the prolific Belfast man, Sam has also put together an exhibition of his own artwork. The exhibition, entitled Six Colours of Black, was on display at ArtisAnn Gallery throughout March.
“My recent paintings are influenced by a style of traditional Chinese painting that dates from the 5th Century AD,” explained Sam. “Known as shan shui, the style depicts natural landscapes using only brush and ink. The title of the exhibition, Six Colours of Black, refers to a Chinese tradition that the artist, through the use of ink, water and brush, can create five shades or colours of black but not six. Six, I am told, is unattainable but the classic Chinese painter spends a lifetime trying to achieve it.”
Following a run of highly successful one-man shows based on well known figures in Northern Ireland, including Percy French, Sam McCready’s latest production brings 1930s Belfast to life.
Based on the autobiography by Robert Harbinson, No Surrender is a powerful and entertaining evocation of life in Belfast during the 1930s.
Be prepared to laugh, to cry, even to sing as you hear about the adventures of a young boy who survives by his wits in a city that in so many ways has changed little since then.
Growing up in the Protestant enclaves of East Belfast and the Donegall Road, Harbinson passionately celebrates his Orange culture, but in the course of the play, he meets a Catholic, one of the ‘Other’, and through this friendship he is enlightened and transformed.
Originally produced for the Eastside Arts Festival last year, Sam is delighted to bring the play to the Lyric Theatre in April.
“Robert Harbinson grew up in East Belfast like myself and grew up in conditions not dissimilar,” explained Sam.
“I first read No Surrender when I was a teacher at Orangefield. I read it to the boys and they were blown away. He was writing about the streets they knew. It was a revelation to them.”
As well as No Surrender, which focuses on his childhood in Belfast, Robert Harbinson, wrote three other autobiographies, including Song of Erne.
“He went on to write a series of travel books and he was a most engaging travel writer but his later autobiographies were almost unreadable, they were just name dropping.”
Sam first staged ‘No Surrender’ last year at the Eastside Arts Festval, something he is very passionate about. “I am very committed to the Eastside Festival,” he said. “We need to bring more arts into the community to empower the community and I really have that mission.
“I want to contribute to that, which is why I did the premier for them. All of the plays I have done have always been performed at the Lyric Theatre because that is my home. I still feel a commitment to the Lyric and I am very proud of the present Lyric.”
No Surrender will be staged at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast from April 11-15.
The one man show, penned by and starring Sam, is also directed by his wife Joan McCready,
The curtain goes up at 8pm each evening, with matinees at 2.45pm on the Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are on sale from the Box Office.