Learning from Lou Volpe in ‘Drama High’

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"Drama HIgh" by Michael Sokolove
"Drama High" by Michael Sokolove looks at Lou Volpe and Truman High School's successful drama program.
“Drama High” by Michael Sokolove looks at Lou Volpe and Truman High School’s successful drama program.

Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania has been called the “Real Life ‘Glee.’” Set in a working-class, conservative community, the school’s drama program has received national acclaim and numerous awards. It served as the launch pad for school editions of “Rent” and “Les Miserables.”

In fact, it was Lou Volpe, Truman High’s drama director, and his assistant Tracey Krause who made the cuts and simplified these musicals for high schools. Their work received blessings and personal visits from Cameron Mackintosh and a representative of Jonathan Larson’s estate.

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Music Theatre International, the licensing agent for these works, first heard about Volpe through drama festivals. Each year, Truman High’s drama department attends regional and statewide competitions.

In Michael Sokolove’s book, “Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town and the Magic of Theater,” readers get a glimpse of a truly exceptional drama teacher and director. Volpe led the school’s theater department for 43 years, until his retirement in 2013.

Sokolove, a 1974 graduate of Truman High, first met Volpe when he took the teacher’s English class in 11th grade. Volpe’s passion for literature rubbed off on his students, including Sokolove. The teacher also recognized and nurtured talent. In fact, it was Volpe who first told Sokolove he was a good writer. The encouragement undoubtedly helped Sokolove chart the course of his career as a published writer and author.

So how did Volpe achieve success? Dismissing it solely as the luck and genius of one man is a mistake. While the author doesn’t provide a step-by-step guide for other drama teachers, it is obvious Volpe took actions to achieve these results.

As well, his success confirms what other high schools are across the country are doing wrong. It can also serve as a critique of how theater is done in America.

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View a video of Lou Volpe’s retirement from Truman High School.

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Opportunities to Fail. Volpe didn’t come from a theater background. Sure, he was a fan but he never received formal training. So when he got the job to stage “Antigone,” he made disastrous decisions. The actors wore green trash bags for costumes and the armor consisted of tin foil. When the play was done, the 14 people sitting in the house gave him a slow golf clap.

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Humility. After this failure, he took classes at La Salle University, Temple University and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The additional education informed Volpe about all aspects of the stage. In addition, each class gave him ideas on how to teach theater. He realized success depended on complete honesty and trust among students and the instructor. So rather than defend decisions that led to failure, Volpe opted to improve.

Administrative Support. The new principal at Truman High was a fan of theater. He wanted the drama department to produce big musicals, such as “Bye Bye Birdie.” This administrator also suggested a longer run for the shows, so ticket sales could gain more traction. As it turns out, longer runs produced more money.

Volpe couldn’t control whether the school administration supported him. What he could do is take advantage of the available resources. Rather than complain about what he didn’t have, Volpe took advantage of his environment. If the principal loved big musicals, then Volpe chose big musicals.

Edgier Choices. Once ticket sales grew, Volpe could try edgier fare such as “Pippin.” Some people complained about content, but tickets still sold. For Volpe, it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

“The way I feel is that if I’m going to do a show, then everyone has to trust that I’m not going to embarrass the building or the school district. They have to know that it’s going to be of the highest artistic quality, and it’s going to help my kids grow up a bit,”  Volpe says in the book.

Trying riskier productions at first wouldn’t have worked. Instead, he gained the trust of people around him before going out on a limb.

Casting. Volpe and Krause chose dependable, talented students. These young people knew when they were cast, it was because Volpe had confidence in them. As a result, the students developed confidence in themselves. There were no favorites; nor did students take for granted they would be cast.

These actors were not necessarily stars, but they had talent and a desire to work hard. They were also well-grounded. Here, Volpe made use of their working-class sensibilities. To be effective onstage, you left your problems at the door of the theater. “They can’t have flakes, loose cannons, over-emoters, any of that,” writes Sokolove.

Drama is Work. When the Truman High actors participated in a theater festival, it was all business. Rather than playing theater games at lunchtime, the cast ate meals. It is easy to link this approach to their working-class background. “The thing you understand,” says one student in the book, “is that Truman theater is tough love. It’s no place for crybabies. You don’t get coddled.”

Long Rehearsal Process. One of the productions featured in the book was cast in September; however it wasn’t performed until just before Thanksgiving. This long process gave students a chance to find their characters. Volpe refused to tell his students how to discover the character. He trusted them to do the work.

Sports versus Theater. The arts are often pitted against the sports programs in most schools across the US. Volpe’s theater program had a breakthrough when a popular athlete chose to participate in “Godspell” rather than the wrestling program. The student athlete, who hadn’t participated in theater before, was moved by the role of Jesus. After a showdown with the wrestling coach, the athlete quit wrestling to take on the role. Theater suddenly became cool in school.

“We’re ass-backwards,” Robby Edmondson, the lighting director, observes in the book. “Here, the cool kids, the popular kids, whatever that means, are the theater kids, and the football players are the ones trying to be cool.”

Art not for Art’s Sake. Volpe was clear that he was not in the entertainment business. He believed art could help his students understand their lives and the world. The drama teacher didn’t run his drama program as a social service. He knew drama could change lives, but art was his first priority. That meant he left preaching social change at the theater door. His job was to make theater approachable rather than transforming it into a church of personal convictions.

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As a result, his work was far-reaching. Even the custodial staff sometimes stopped work to watch the cast rehearse.

Anti-Elitism. Throughout Sokolove’s book, the class issues are well-documented. Students at Truman High aren’t nearly as well-off as their counterparts in other communities. There is a snob factor. College theater musical programs in the area, such as Rider University visited the school out of obligation. Representatives didn’t expect to find talent at Truman High, despite its documented successes. Most college theater programs looked elsewhere in Bucks County where there were wealthier parents.

As well, students at Truman High don’t go to expensive theater camps or classes. Who can afford that? These students work real jobs. That is something high school and college theater establishments have a difficult time comprehending.

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“At a scholarship audition, I watch as Bobby Ryan is asked to talk about the breadth of his community service. He looks genuinely bewildered by the concept. He says something at first about helping out in his neighborhood as younger kids went trick-or-treating on Halloween, but senses the answer is not satisfactory. ‘I’m sorry,’ he finally says, ‘I’m not really sure how to answer. I go to school and I do theater and I have a job.”

Students at Truman High work at Chick-fil-A and other places. Volpe allowed them to go if they had to work. No one had to choose between earning money and theater. Making money was a must, something Volpe not only understood but encouraged.

Perhaps the most important lesson of “Drama High” is that change in theater doesn’t come from organizations. It comes from individuals. Lou Volpe, drama teacher, touched thousands of lives in the course of his 43 years at Truman High. Rather than forming yet one more organization to promote theater, he took action in his own backyard. American theater won’t change or grow until you do.

Volpe explained it best. “We are not comfortable at Truman. Maybe that’s a blessing, artistically. I don’t want to say that the people in this community have nothing to lose – of course they do – but they don’t live in these perfect little worlds. And I don’t think they look to Truman Drama to do shows that reassure them that everything is beautiful in the world. Because it’s really not, and they know that.”