Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

April 15, 2003

New play about Cold War Hungary based on prof's experience

Over the years, retired University of Guelph professor Keith Slater has directed or acted in some 150 plays as a sideline to his career in textile engineering. But his current project is different. Later this month, he will watch as the Elora Community Theatre brings to life a story based largely on his own experience of befriending a dissident in Cold War Hungary and helping her son escape to freedom.

Amnesty, written and directed by Slater, will premiere April 25 at the Fergus Grand Theatre and will continue April 26 and 27 and May 1 to 3.“It’s being directed from the heart rather than just from the head,” Slater said. “It’s the best play I’ve ever written, I think. It means a lot more to me.”

Amnesty is based on the story of a woman Slater met in Hungary in 1970 while attending an academic conference. His visit included a bus tour of the country, and he was listening to the driver point out various historical landmarks when a woman’s voice interrupted from the back of the bus: “Do you know why they’re telling us so much of Hungary’s past? It’s because under Communism, we have no future.”

The words, delivered with disgust and anger, drilled into Slater, not least because this was the Cold War, a time of what he calls “absolute terror” for many Hungarians living under the eyes and ears of the secret police. Why was this woman risking arrest and imprisonment with such open dissension? When he spoke privately to the woman, she told him the state had already done its worst to her. A former schoolteacher, she had been jailed in 1955 for using the Bible as a textbook. Now, 14 years later, she was hoping to find a way to help her son flee the country. Emboldened by her conversation with the Canadian professor, she asked Slater if he could help.

Declining to reveal the name of the woman, now 70, or that of her son — in the play they are called Magda and Tamas — Slater said: “She’s an amazing woman.” His two-act play includes a love triangle, a betrayal and a violent death. He blends the story of his main characters with separate real-life accounts of a shooting and an instance of deceit.

In real life, Slater helped the young man leave Hungary by sponsoring a visit to Germany, ostensibly to attend a language course. “Tamas” lived as a refugee in Vienna, then immigrated to the United States, where he is now a travel agent in New York City. Slater has seen him only once since he fled Hungary, but he has visited “Magda” during several return trips to Hungary.

Unsure about her reaction, he hasn’t told her about the play or about this spring’s performance. He might mention it this summer when he visits again, during a side trip he’s planning while leading the latest in his series of occasional European walking tours for Guelph-area travellers.

Retired since 2000 from U of G, where he was a professor in the School of
Engineering with a cross-appointment in the Department of Consumer Studies, Slater says he now has more time to indulge his love for the theatre. He’s acted in or directed plays staged everywhere from the Guelph Little Theatre to his church to cruise liners. He says he loves the instant gratification that comes on stage — “the thrill of that audience laughing at you or weeping with you. It’s an indescribable feeling.”

For more information about the Amnesty production or to order tickets, call (519) 787-1981 or 846-9412.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 53338 or Rachelle Cooper, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982.

Email this entry to:

Message (optional):