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Louisville play depicts renowned Jewish artist Marc Chagall and the joy of making art

This is a postcard ad for the upcoming play "Chagall in School." It includes details about the show and a photo of artist Marc Chagall.
ShPIeL-Performing Identity
"Chagall in School" is an upcoming play that focuses on one period in renowned Jewish artist Marc Chagall’s life.

Marc Chagall was a Jewish man who became one of last century’s most influential visual artists. An upcoming play in Louisville tells part of his story.

The theater project ShPIeL Performing Identity will feature the Louisville premiere of “Chagall in School” next month. The play details the triumphs and pitfalls the painter experienced when he opened an art school in his Belarusian hometown in the late 1910s.

An initiative like that was unheard of before then, said David Chack, the play’s director.

“Jews were not allowed to be able to do their work in such an open way, to be part of the Enlightenment, to be part of the cultural things that were going on [there],” he explained.

But the Russian Revolution created an opportunity for Chagall to do something groundbreaking with this new school.

Chack said they’re designing the Louisville production to immerse the audience in that time period. But the play is written in a contemporary style, giving it a modern feel.

Cast member Clint Nowicke described “Chagall in School” as a dramedy that has emotional scenes but also puts levity in the mix.

“It’s definitely got some parts that are funny, and we would like people to laugh at those parts,” he joked.

Nowicke also said major themes within the play reflect aspects of the history of Judaism and Jewish culture.

Through this production, Chack hopes the audience will experience “this joy of being able to paint in beautiful ways and paint from their own identities and paint from their hearts and paint from what it means to be a Jew, what it means to be a Russian.”

He said the play, written by James Sherman, speaks to how beauty, art and joining together with other people to create is the way to challenge hate.

The cast of “Chagall in School,” who are almost all from Louisville, have been rehearsing this month at the Keneseth Israel synagogue.

They talked with LPM News about what they enjoy about exploring Chagall as the play’s central figure, such as his steadfast commitment to his creative vision.

“His art is so tied to his culture and his beliefs and his loves, the things that he's passionate about,” said actor Bernie Stone. “He doesn't break his values.”

Andy Szuran, who will play Chagall on stage, described the artist as a bit of a rebel.

“He doesn't want to or even try to fit in. He wants to do things his way,” Szuran said. “And that's the advice I think he gave a lot of students while he was trying to teach them … ‘Just do it your own way.’ I like that.”

The play’s subject matter is a treat for art buffs.

That’s what interested Whitney Nowicke, an art history major who’s working on the play’s costumes. She noted that some of the greatest works of American art wouldn’t have happened without the pre-World War II artists in Europe, like Chagall and other characters featured in the play.

“Chagall in School” will debut in Louisville during a difficult time for many Jewish people, who are concerned about and affected by the current war between Israel and Hamas.

Chack acknowledged that may be on some audience members’ minds as they watch the show, but he and other crew members said the play focuses on a different place and time — and it centers on the brightness of Jewish culture and art.

“And it's not that hardship has not been faced by the Jewish community. But how many stories are there out there just celebrating, you know, the culture and the creators and the artists?” said Sophia Pietrkowski, an actor in the show. “I think that's really what the show accomplishes, and I think that's kind of cool – being able to highlight the joy and community of being Jewish and telling Jewish stories.”

“Chagall in School” opens Feb. 8 and runs through Feb. 17 at the Kentucky Performing Arts’ MeX Theater.

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.