Drama High

How a struggling Pennsylvania high school became a theater dynamo.

Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, by Michael Sokolove, Penguin Group, 362 pages

Warning: flashbacks may occur for those with theater backgrounds.

In a blue-collar post-industrial town in Pennsylvania, more than 500 people have gathered to see a group of high school kids. A reporter, and some major league professionals sit in the audience – they’re watching every move the kids make. No, it’s not for football, basketball, or baseball. These students are onstage in a play, and they’re making high school theater history.

Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater is a fantastic piece of reporting from Michael Sokolove. He dives into the last year of a boundary-breaking teacher’s career, revealing his and his students’ personal and professional triumphs and failures in an attempt to understand how he achieved educational greatness.

The stakes are high for these students as they attempt to take a show to the national level. For some, a college scholarship could mean the difference between a career in the arts and a job at a manufacturing plant. For others, knowing they did the best job they possibly could, and that their teacher is proud of them, is enough.

Harry S. Truman high school is a public school. It's not a magnet or charter school. The school's theater has splintery wooden pews for seats. The theater program has been consistently underfunded since the 70s. And yet, the students at this school have embraced theatrical productions the way other schools embrace sports. Why? Lou Volpe.

 “[Lou Volpe] is that one teacher that anyone needs to get anywhere in life. He became that by having been given room to express and expand his genius.” For about 40 years, Mr. Volpe has taught theater classes and directed the plays at Harry S. Truman High, largely without administration interference or oversight. His pure love for both the craft and the students shines through every production they put on together, even though many of them deal with dark or potentially uncomfortable subjects.

The harsh realities of the teaching profession in America have been well documented and criticized, and “Drama High” is not without a few subtle digs at the national institution. On stage though, the problems that plague the students and teachers are left behind, and we start to understand why this program is so successful. Volpe demands and cultivates excellence despite what would appear to be “barren ground” and overwhelming odds to many educators.

Levittown, Pa., is both unique in America, and analogous to the problems facing the rest of the country. Unique in that they have one of the most consistently successful high school theater programs ever. Alumni from the school have gone on to become deeply involved in the entertainment business. Some have even won Emmys. Productions from their school have made their way to national competitions. They’ve even pioneered high school versions of successful Broadway shows, including "Les Miserables," "Spring Awakening," and "Rent."

Levittown is a working-class town. Today that means that it's a struggling town. But in the 1950s and '60s the inhabitants were making decent middle-class wages in the factories. Those jobs have left the country though, leaving communities behind to cope with a reeling economy.

From this background come Volpe’s performers: children who have had to face tougher decisions and situations than most adults. Children whose surroundings are constantly whispering that they are not good enough, and that their circumstances will dictate their lives. Volpe breaks this illusion for them by giving them the gift of excellence, and showing them what success feels like.

The pure dynamism and rush of live performance can never fully be captured in a book, but Sokolove comes about as close as you can get. He takes the audience through the rehearsal process and into each of the performer’s lives, breaking the fourth wall of the performances, but creating a greater triumph in the process.

As an underdog story, “Drama High” is little unfair. There’s so much stacked against these kids, you can’t help but root for them. But we’re all suckers for the underdog anyway. (Who wants to read about a bunch of rich kids doing good, well-funded work?)

Unlike a sports story though, the bad guy here is fear. Fear of greatness, fear of controversy, fear of their futures, fear of self-worth. True education pushes both the teacher and the student past these places, brings them to a higher, more grounded sense of themselves and each other. Lou Volpe is a true educator, the kind we should, but somehow can’t bring ourselves, to cultivate in our classrooms today.

Ben Frederick is a Monitor contributor.

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