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Drama, On Stage & Off

September 20, 2013 2:18 pm0 commentsViews: 126
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xForWebsiteOnly-DramaHigh-StageKids“High school theater is, generally speaking, almost shockingly vanilla.” So writes Michael Sokolove, acclaimed author, journalist and Levittown native, in his new book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.

 But the “brilliant teacher” in the title, drama director Lou Volpe of Harry S. Truman High School, does not do vanilla. In the 40+ years that Mr. Volpe spent guiding the Bristol Township school’s Drama Club, he never shied away from putting on plays that most high schools would have deemed too controversial, exploring themes of betrayal, class conflict and sexuality.

“He favored material that was on the ‘knife’s edge,’ as he put it,” writes Mr. Sokolove. “But the community and school administration trusted him to stage the shows tastefully, and he encouraged his students to approach art as a way of fully embracing, and understanding, life.”

Lou Volpe, a graduate of Father Judge High School in Philadelphia and LaSalle University, built Truman High School’s drama program into one of the finest in America before retiring this June. Truman, a little known school in a blue-collar, economically struggling town, became the school that Broadway producers first turn to when trying out challenging and often controversial shows like Spring Awakening and Les Miserables. In 2007, when he was asked to direct a high school version of Rent, 300 students—nearly one of every five in the school—auditioned for parts.

In Drama High, Mr. Sokolove follows Mr. Volpe and a group of his students through the last year of his career and provides a compelling, close-up look as they face dramas both on stage and in their personal lives. Mr. Sokolove, himself a former student of Mr. Volpe, notes the legendary teacher’s ability to see his students’ natural gifts early on. “They felt that at a certain moment, he knew them better than they knew themselves. That is what gifted, intuitive teachers do.”

Graduates of Truman’s drama program have gone on to become Emmy-winning producers, entertainment executives, newscasters, and founders of community theater. “Volpe is one of those people,” writes Mr. Sokolove, “who create astonishing success in the most unlikely of settings. Generations of his students heard him say, ‘If all we had was a bare stage with one light bulb, we could still do theater.’ And the thing is, they believed him.”

 Drama High, by Michael Sokolove, will be available at all major bookstores on September 26 and also at

Lou looks back on his career and student sing his praises in this video by Calkins Media.