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From Classroom to Stage: Udel and Krakovsky Present Filmed Puppet Show

After an unusual season of virtual performances, Theater Emory continues to break new ground with its next offering, a free puppet film about a Leftist puppy, adapted from a book of Yiddish children’s stories by Chaver Paver. Directed by Emory alumnus Jake Krakovsky (14C), this unlikely production, entitled Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup, is an outgrowth of a collaboration between Professor Miriam Udel, Director of Graduate Studies for the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, and Associate Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture in the German Studies Department.

Krakovsky and Udel first met in 2014 when they appeared together on a panel to discuss the influence of playwright Harold Pinter’s Jewish identity on his dramatic works, part of an academic symposium conducted by Theater Emory. Krakovsky brought his perspective as the writer of a one-man show, Yankl on the Moon, which uses the comic “Chelm” stories of Yiddish folklore to examine Holocaust memory. They reconnected in the fall of 2019 when Krakovsky enrolled in a public seminar Udel was teaching at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, which introduced him to the world of modern Yiddish literature.

“We were walking back to our cars in the parking lot one night and Prof. Udel said, ‘Hey, you like those Labzik stories, right? They would make a pretty good puppet show, wouldn’t they?’” Krakovsky says. Having worked as a professional puppeteer, he agreed but thought such a possibility would be unlikely. Still, Krakovsky decided to learn the language himself via a seven-week intensive taught by the Yiddish Book Center. “I found that I loved this language, that I loved trying to figure out how to speak it and how to understand it. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with it, but I knew I wanted to incorporate it into my creative work,” he says.

Given the current circumstances, Krakovsky thought Theater Emory might be more open to unusual pitches—he took a chance and pitched a bilingual, Yiddish, communist puppy dog puppet show. To continue the collaboration with Prof. Udel, the two devised an undergraduate course, cross-listed between Theater, Jewish Studies, and German, to serve as the academic hub for the project. The Tam Institute helped hire Krakovsky to assist with the course.

For student Kylie Hall, who will also narrate one of the stories presented in the production, the course’s biggest draw was Prof. Udel herself. “I have taken several of [her] courses during my time at Emory…she truly wants her students to learn and to love what they are learning,” Hall explains. Though she took a few drama courses in high school, she never imagined herself performing again. She says, “When Jake [Krakovsky] sent out the email to our class asking if any of us wanted to be one of the narrators, I decided to be spontaneous. When would I ever get the opportunity to be in a Theater Emory production other than this? So, I ran with it, and I am so happy that I did.”

Two other students from within the class will join Hall as narrators, using English translation provided by Udel while the dialogue within the stories will be performed in the original Yiddish. Krakovsky will perform the puppetry with paper puppets built by designer Ryan Bradburn. Student narrator Caroline Stewart says, “Ultimately, I learned a different way to tell a story. I was not familiar with puppetry and I don’t think anyone was familiar with Zoom puppetry. Adapting to a new virtual medium of storytelling has been invaluable as an artist and just as a human being as well.”

Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup will present four stories, handpicked by Udel and Krakovsky, from the total of twelve published in the 1935 original. “We had a few different priorities, such as which of these would best suit the medium we’re interested in, which had the most movement and action and visual interest since puppetry is chiefly a visual medium,” says Krakovsky.

Other criteria included choosing stories most pertinent to the current moment. While Chaver Paver wrote from a specific perspective as a part of the International Worker’s Order, the Yiddish branch of a federation of communist-aligned mutual aid societies, to teach political lessons to children in after-school programs, Krakovsky believes their staying power comes from the timeless topics they tackle. “There’s nothing subtle about the moral and political messages, but that’s fine with me because they’re all still true more or less. The stories are about economic equality, labor rights, racism, police brutality, and peaceful protests,” adding, “there’s nothing about them that isn’t immediately relevant.”

Krakovsky also hopes to complicate what he considers to a generally impoverished understanding of modern Yiddish culture. He says that while it did not have very much time to exist before it was largely wiped out, it was still rich and internally diverse.  “If they knew that, I think a lot of people would be interested in learning about it and engaging with all of its different stripes and the wonderful things it has to offer to us,” he concludes.  

After years of translating Yiddish children’s literature on her own, Udel is delighted to be working with a vibrant creative team headed by Krakovsky. She adds, “Yiddish cultural leaders arrived at such a sophisticated understanding of what childhood was and what children were capable of. Every detail of this production-- from the ingenious technical skill with which the puppets were crafted and operated, to the rich soundscape, to the care taken with Chaver Paver’s language—extends and honors that sophistication.”

Labzik will stream on-demand May 24 - June 5. Sign up here to receive an email when it is available.

Published 5/9/2021.