BWW Review: DRAMA HIGH Teaches Success In Life
Lou Volpe is one of those rare breeds in the American education system. He is a lifelong advocate of the arts in our schools. And not only is he rare for this accolade. He managed to not only survive his 40-year-tenure as head drama teacher at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, PA, but truly thrive and become somewhat of a theatrical icon. He is responsible for mounting pilot versions three highly successful musicals: Rent, Spring Awakening, and Les Miserables. His productions have garnered countless awards nationally and the folks at Music Theatre International (MTI) took notice and specifically chose Lou to create these truncated, yet artistically honorable versions of commercially high profile shows. His high school was even visited by none other than theatrical producing legend, Cameron Mackintosh, which is how Drama High begins.
Written by Michael Sokolove (Warrior Girls, The Ticket Out, and Hustle: The Myth, Life, and Lives of Pete Rose), Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, takes a close look at that most precious of high school experiences that is not, thankfully, sports-related for a change: high school theater. Sokolove also has a deep, personal connection with the source material, as he attended Harry S. Truman High School as a teenager and was a former student of Lou Volpe's. In fact, he credits Volpe for giving him the initial courage to venture into the world of becoming an author as a career.
In Drama High, Sokolove spends two years revisiting his hometown and sitting down with both students, faculty, and friends of Truman High. The book takes the reader on a journey through not only the school itself, but deeper into the surrounding community nest that the school resides in. Levittown, PA (a town within Bristol Township) is a very blue-collar community. However, Truman High is like so many other cities and towns in our country that have suffered from artistic cuts to its education system. But drama teacher Lou Volpe has achieved the almost impossible: making theatre not only still accessible, but actually cool and a necessity in a community where football and other athletics is given more attention than the great American playwrights of the twentieth and twenty-first century. As such, the students at Harry S. Truman High are not your typical theatrical elite, or so it would seem. They have a genuine theatrical thirst.
What Sokolove achieves so well in Drama High is simple, yet impactful storytelling through the eyes of typical high school teenagers. Since these teens do come from modest financial means, for many of them the arts in school (and thankfully Lou Volpe's string of classes in everything from intro to theatre to advanced theatre and his highly-acclaimed stage productions annually) is their only true outlet to relieve themselves from frustrating familial woes or their next shift on their job, all amidst an ever-spinning world of social media aesthetics. From chapter to chapter, Sokolove explores the student-teacher relationships between Lou and his assistant Tracey Krause and the mounting of several Volpe-helmed productions. From the rehearsal process to opening nights to triumphs at the International Thespian Festival in Nebraska and all the highs and lows in between, the consummate professionalism and warmth of Lou Volpe shines through.
Yes, this book may evoke memories of that time you were in your own musical production in high school. But Sokolove goes one step further. He paints the picture that what is vitally important is the atmosphere and environment that a teacher can create for a student to enable them to be nurtured and flourish in whatever they aspire to do in life. In his eyes and now in mine, Lou Volpe will always be a true star.
Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater
Book by Michael Sokolove
Riverhead Books, 2013
Photo Credit: BWW-Staff