Drama High

A new book tells the story of an inspiring high school drama teacher whose students put on nationally recognized performances in an economically challenged school system.

Article Written by Alisa Solomon and Originally Published in The New York Times on September 27, 2013

Many public schools across the country reopened this month hanging by fraying threads. With arts programs already slashed, staffs have been cut even further in cities from Los Angeles to Washington. Suburbs — long considered a haven from such scarcity — aren’t necessarily faring much better. And certainly not the once-model suburb of Levittown, which suffers the particularly bad fortune of being in Pennsylvania, where schools have been starved of late. There, as Michael Sokolove notes in his stirring chronicle of the flourishing drama program at a Levittown high school, Gov. Tom Corbett suggested that state colleges short on funds should drill on their campuses for natural gas.

The drama program — at Harry S. Truman High School — opened this year with one more deficit: its galvanizing teacher, Lou Volpe, retired in June after more than 40 years showing students in an economically slumped, culturally narrow community how to strive for excellence, grapple with challenging ideas, empathize with people different from themselves and enlarge their notions of who they might become. And he brought their theatrical achievements glowing national attention. Under Volpe’s direction, Truman students presented pilot high school versions of “Les Misérables,” “Rent” and “Spring Awakening” — premieres that would determine whether these shows would become available to high schools generally. (All three triumphed.)

Being available, however, hasn’t made all the plays Volpe directed popular ­choices at other schools. Part of his success — pedagogical and theatrical — Sokolove suggests, comes from his “edgy” repertory. Not for the sake of sensation, but to engage kids in urgent contemporary social debate, he often selects works that raise the eyebrows, and even occasional ire, of local conservatives who object to frank representations of adolescent sexuality (hetero and homo), addiction, rebellion — the usual flash points in the old culture wars. Of the 25,000-plus high school theater programs in the country, fewer than 150 have produced “Rent.” At Truman, 300 kids — about one in five students there — auditioned for it. As one student tells Sokolove, confronting issues that make people uncomfortable is “one of the big reasons to do theater, right?”

With captivating verve, Sokolove covers the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years, following two productions: “Good Boys and True,” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s melodrama about a prep school football hero whose world crumbles after a videotape gets around, showing him sexually ­humiliating a girl; and “Spring Awakening,” Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s rock ’n’ roll adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 tragedy, revealing the dangers of repressing young people’s sexual knowledge. A hilarious section of “Drama High” shows Volpe and his assistant instructing the boys singing a number built almost entirely around the “f-word” how to reduce its actual utterance to a scholastically acceptable number: two.

At a state competition, “Good Boys” earns a spot at the annual International Thespian Festival in Nebraska, an achievement all the more impressive, Sokolove stresses, given that Truman joins far wealthier schools at this nationwide event. Amid the glossy playbills handed out for other productions, Truman distributes folded-over 8›-by-11 photocopies; in contrast to kids who work with private voice coaches and acting tutors, Truman students don’t even have a singing class to sign up for. They don’t live in poverty, exactly; rather, within “the steady, low-simmering tumult of economic and family instability.” In one of many poignant portrayals of individual students, Sokolove recounts how one boy, auditioning for a competitive scholarship, is asked to describe the “service” he has performed in his community. Dashing every day from after-school rehearsals to his job at Chick-fil-A, the boy barely understands the question.

Levittown, the planned, model suburb built in the early 1950s, was once “the epicenter of postwar suburban optimism,” Sokolove writes, with stable factory jobs and publicly maintained amenities. Now it is “ground zero in America’s new narratives: income inequality, the fraying of the working class, suburban poverty.”

Sokolove, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, has special reason for lamentation. He grew up in Levittown, graduating from Truman in 1974. Five public swimming pools beckoned kids like him every summer; today four of them have been filled in. As a high school student, Sokolove had no interest in theater: he was an athlete, obsessed with sports. But he landed in a literature class Volpe taught at the time. “Everyone in life needs to have had at least one brilliant, inspiring teacher,” he states. In Volpe, he found one.

All that gives Sokolove a palpable stake in the story, and makes the book as much a personal memoir as it is equal parts admiring profile (including a frank section on Volpe’s gradual self-acceptance as a gay man), tribute to the power of arts education and jeremiad on the evaporation of middle-class opportunity. Unlike Samuel G. Freedman and Tracy Kidder, whose annals, respectively, of an English teacher on the Lower East Side of New York (“Small Victories”) and of a fifth-grade teacher in Holyoke, Mass. (“Among Schoolchildren”), remain classics of the genre some 25 years after they were written, Sokolove is no fly on the wall. He is conspicuously present, expressing astonishment at the work he witnesses, reflecting on his own upward trajectory and occasionally ranting, honorably, against the widening income gap and the “small-bore metrics” that have ruinously subsumed public education in recent years.

Sokolove is also no theater geek. Stanislavski can hardly be summed up as a “legendary acting coach,” and Wedekind is not “long forgotten.” With a more refined nose for Glovolium than for greasepaint, he doesn’t fathom how Volpe draws such good acting from students as deeply as he plumbed the ways in which Coach Brooks Hurst made ballplayers better hitters in his earlier book “The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw”; nor does he inhabit the inner lives of the actors as knowingly as he did those of the driven soccer stars in his book “Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports.” Still, passages showing Volpe working on scenes with student actors or reading through a play in class crackle with discovery. Sokolove’s own experience being wowed by Volpe’s charges becomes the implicit dramatic arc, as he recognizes, with admiration, how theater “teaches the opposite of what I learned in sports, in which the model is that there is no self, no emotional landscape or core. . . . To look within, to feel or imagine, is not encouraged.”

Volpe groomed a successor — wisely, not someone who would, or could, try to be just like him, but a former student, Tracey Krause, who went off to earn an education degree and returned to assist him. Sokolove winningly captures Krause as a theater-savvy, no-nonsense teacher with a disarming sense of humor: “the profane den mother.” It now falls to her — and the dedicated students — to sustain the Truman legacy of standing ovations, national recognition and an ethos of hard work that produces a thrilling kind of growth that can’t be measured on any test.

Whether the fulfillment of a school’s mission must rely on a few heroic teachers, rather than be addressed institutionally and systemically, is not Sokolove’s subject. He shines a heartening light on how one of those passionate heroes devoted himself, as Volpe himself puts it, to educating, rather than training, young people. If only the politicians holding the purse strings cared about — even understood — the distinction.