‘Acting means living, it’s all I do and all I’m good at. If I weren’t getting paid well, I would still be acting in a small troupe somewhere’ is how Morgan Freeman voiced his passionate and prideful dedication to his craft. Cast alongside Freeman and fellow Hollywood great Danny De Vito, the Glasgow-born Michael Cates was once lingering on the shaky precipice of stardom before the wheel of fortune took a calamitous turn when an untimely car accident involving Freeman resulted in the film’s cancellation. Although his elusive celebrity ambitions were cruelly dashed, Michael’s natural talent has indeed transported him across the Atlantic to tour with the innovative, award-winning Blue Man Group. That he was destined to tread the boards is however unsurprising, for his mother Edna (maiden name Green) was the niece of the phenomenal playwright and founder of the Jewish Institute Players, Avrom Greenbaum.
Edna initially agreed to an interview to shed some light on the creative legacy of her uncle to theatre national and local, and to reflect also on his personal contribution to the company and wider community. His one act plays (ranging from the hilarious Watch on the Clyde to the more sombre Bread of Affliction about a Russian Pogrom) and poetry coincide with many of the themes of ‘Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces’ project: the dramatic performance of a distinctly Scottish-Jewish identity, the artistic expression of diasporic experience, and the transformation of Scottish urban landscapes into real and imagined Jewish cultural spaces.
Her testimony enlivens my understanding of the various memory objects – theatre programmes, photos, postcards and ephemera – lodged at the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre. She articulates what involvement with the Players meant to those, like herself, happy to devote much of their leisure to learning lines and perfecting performances. She touches upon the group’s role in facilitating and reshaping relations within the Jewish community – revealing that many of the Players met or got to know their future spouses at club rehearsals – as well as the interplay between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities through the collaborative involvement of the troupe in the 1940s Unity Theatre.
A charming and highly self-deprecating, natural raconteur, Edna is effortlessly able to weave details both humorous and touching into an engaging and extraordinarily candid life narrative. Echoing Freeman’s love of acting, she wistfully recalled her own youthful aspirations:
‘All throughout school there was nothing I ever wanted to do except being on stage. I was the class clown.’
Passing the King’s Theatre in Glasgow as an ambitious schoolgirl, she confidently assured her friends ‘I’ll be there one day!’ Although breaking into the highly competitive professional theatrical world ultimately proved an unattainable dream– hindered by the lack of local Drama College and daunted by the prospect of forsaking family to relocate to London in uncertain pursuit of fame and fortune – Edna nevertheless enjoyed what she recalls as ‘a wonderful experience’ with the amateur yet highly acclaimed Jewish Institute Players.
Unassumingly, she attributes much of her success to invaluable encouragement of her pre-eminent and inspirational uncle – ‘Uncle Abie’ she affectionately calls him – who recognising her talent, secured parts for her in numerous plays. While still a girl she landed a small part in the festival-winning production of The Dybbuk, in which Ida Shuster topped the bill as Leah, and at the tender age of 14 she was cast as the lead in Dear Ruth. She also played the bride in Blood Wedding and counts Café Crown, Winter’s Journey and The Dream amongst the highlights of her varied theatrical career. Active also behind the scenes, she tried her hand at directing Morning Star and Brighton Beach Memoirs during the 1980s, and served on the committee of the Greenbaum Players (as they became known following Avrom’s death) when the company relocated to Coplaw Street.
Edna spoke adoringly of the Uncle Abie she remembers as ‘so clever, modest and quiet.’ ‘He had these fantastic eyes’ she mused ‘you just listened to every word, and just a wonderful sense of humour.’ Watching Edna captivatingly holding court, regaling us with a delightful selection of annecdotes of mishap and mayhem – untimely curtain closures, actors appearing late on stage, bungled and improvised lines – it is striking how many of her uncle’s qualities she shares. The intergenerational legacy of the Greenbaums, happily, lives on!