BY MICHAEL DAEHN
IN THE 2013 New York Times bestseller Drama High, author Michael Sokolove describes Harry S. Truman High School theatre educator and director Lou Volpe as “that one teacher that anyone needs to get anywhere in life.” Musical Theatre International thought so too and chose Volpe’s Thespians to pilot school editions of the musicals Les Misérables, Rent, and Spring Awakening. Volpe also directed Troupe 5008 in several main stage shows at the International Thespian Festival and reinvigorated the struggling working-class community of Levittown, Pennsylvania.
Now this true story continues with Rise, a television show inspired by Drama High. The series will offer the theatre equivalent of Friday Night Lights, the NBC drama about a high school football team. Rise stars Thespian alum Josh Radnor (Bexley High School, Ohio, Troupe 2512) as Lou Mazzuchelli, Rosie Perez as colleague Tracey, and Auli’i Cravalho as current student Lilette Suarez. The series, led by Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller, will premiere March 13 at 10 p.m., then move to its regular 9 p.m. time-slot on March 20.
Volpe took a step away from his fresh retirement and new national media venture to reflect for Teaching Theatre on his teaching and high school directing career.
It’s been a couple years since you retired. What do you miss the most?
LOU VOLPE: In a word: students. I miss their energy, their intellectual curiosity, their inappropriateness, their candor, their willingness to risk, and their openness to criticism. Students keep you young — at least at heart — and have an unwavering sense of loyalty when they trust in you. They are the heart of why you chose teaching in the first place. They are not easy — especially at the senior high age — but that is what makes them worth it all.
Looking back on your entire career, what did you find especially rewarding about your work?
LV: You can be in the middle of a lesson, eyes on you, and you know that they are not there. You feel confident that what you are doing is important, and those glazed-over eyes remind you that you are dying up there. If you can adjust for just one moment, you might get them back. Sometimes, it’s a bit of humor or a personal observation … but it works, and they’re back. It happens in an instant. It’s a moment of total synthesis between the teacher and the students. “They get it!” moments make the day worthwhile for a teacher.
What kind of learning environment did you foster in your classroom?
LV: I tried to create a nonthreatening place where students could enter and feel safe and comfortable to create. I used a studio room approach with clean, usable sofas, loveseats, and comfortable chairs. The furniture was placed against all four walls and the open middle space was for us to play, create, act, talk, etc. It was a place where you could be yourself without fear of any negative criticism and bullying, a place where you could feel good about taking risks, about failing, about achieving — where you could be funny or serious or deeply honest. I would like to think that the students looked forward to those 52 minutes when they were free of the structures and constraints of regular classrooms
The best payoff
The following is an excerpt from Michael Sokolove’s Drama High, which describes Lou Volpe’s final talk with his cast backstage before their performance of Good Boys and True at the International Thespian Festival in 2011.
When Volpe talks to the cast backstage before this performance, it is his last time with them. He has not written anything down. It works best for him at these moments if he just speaks the words as they come to him. In a cramped dressing room, he stands between Tracey Krause and Carol Gross, the retired gym teacher, a close friend who volunteers at the school and takes every trip with Truman Drama. Next to Gross is Bill Hallman, another friend and the president of Pennsylvania’s Educational Theatre Association.
“This is our final talk,” Volpe begins. “A few minutes ago, I looked at Tracey and I looked at Bill and Carol, and I wondered what I was going to say, and even then, I got emotional. I welled up. Because we will not be together, all of us, in this same way ever again. But I want you to know, when I see my students from the past, there is always that something. That memory I can pull out, and I know today is one of those memories.”
Volpe is composed, but others are not. Bobby wipes away tears, then gives up and just lets them fall. Courtney says softly, “Stop. Please stop.” Volpe continues on.
“You all came to this in your own way. Britney came right away. Wayne came right away. Zach was the last. But you all came at your own pace, and when you were ready. Is today the last time we’re going to be together? Physically, yes. In my heart, no.
“I think that is the best payoff for being a teacher. You always have these memories. I can go back to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I can go back to Into the Woods. And I pull out these beautiful pictures. I can go back to Tracey going out onstage the night of her main stage show at this festival. I can go back to her fighting with her boyfriend before the show started. I have all that in my heart.
“I just want to thank all of you, not only for this play, but for Rent, for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, for High School Musical, Blood Brothers, for Theater 3 and for Musical Theater. I want to thank you for making me a better teacher. You did.”
Copyright © 2013 Michael Sokolove. Courtesy of Riverhead Books.
How would you describe your teaching style?
LV: There was a fine line between the teacher and the students in my classroom. The students felt like I was part of them … and in a way I was, but I was their teacher, and I knew that from the beginning of each class. By including myself in their games, scenes, exercises, etc. I was immersing them into a world of theatre where they began making their own choices and decisions without me telling them what to do. I wanted them to figure it out.
How about your directing style?
LV: When I was directing a play or a musical, I was able to see the entire production in my head beforehand. But I believed that the play was a living thing and it needed breath from the entire company, not just the director. I was open to any and all questions from the cast and crew. My word was never law, nor did I want it to be. As in the creation of any art piece, we struggled, we discovered, we celebrated, we cried, and eventually we embraced the work as ours. It was always a process. I never found the ending until it came. That is what educational theatre is all about.
What were the defining characteristics of a Truman High drama student?
LV: There were no defining characteristics of a Truman High drama student. The cross-section of students in the cast included every group in the building: athletes, cheerleaders, gifted and talented, special education students, students with physical disabilities, students who had never been in a show in their life, science-math geeks, kids who could change the oil in your car, kids who had kids … the list goes on. We were color- and gender-blind casting before it became fashionable — that was a part of our lives.
What did you expect from each of them, if they were to succeed in your program?
LV: Total dedication to the work. There is no other way to put it. To be cast in a Truman show, you had to give up a lot. Rehearsals were long and daily. Musicals required eight full Saturday rehearsals in addition to daily practice and rehearsals during winter break. I wanted them to become the characters, not merely to memorize the scripts. That is why I insisted on long rehearsal schedules, because student actors need time to fully realize who they are onstage. I knew that, by the time the curtain was to go up, there would be fully realized, three-dimensional characters on stage.
How did you get your students to buy into what you were preaching?
LV: When a student knows he/she is in a quality production where the adults are giving 100 percent to make the production a success and a quality show, they will also give you 100 percent. At Truman, where the reputation grew from those early days, students in the drama program knew that they were going to be a part of an important, creative, first-class production, and they became very proud of that. The program set standards of excellence, and the students aspired to become a part of that excellence. The older, more experienced ones became mentors to the new actors. It’s a tradition that develops over time and is perfected year after year.
Why were you able to direct some shows that other schools would have found too mature?
LV: I knew I could only go to some places in scripts and not to others. I was careful to keep the taste level appropriate for a high school audience. I don’t think I ever did a show that celebrated gratuitous violence or sexual overtones. When we were asked to pilot both Rent and Spring Awakening, I knew we were treading in an area that was extremely sensitive. I met with the parents of the casts. We had dialogues on how we were going to handle it. It was all done upfront and honestly. The school administrations began to trust that I would make the appropriate decisions about shows and scenes. I never betrayed their trust. You have to know what you want to do — you must take risks — but you also must remember you’re dealing with high school kids.
You taught for four decades at Truman. Why did you stay? You must have had other, potentially better paying opportunities over the years.
LV: Yes, I taught there in that same building for 44 years. It was a perfect fit from the beginning. I felt like I was home. I never thought about leaving. I would wake up in the morning and be happy that I was going to school. People still mock me about that, but they’ll never know how Truman could love you back. It was never a cold, distant building to me. It was always a home. When I left on that last day of my career, I locked the room, walked down to the stage, and kissed it. Sounds sentimental, doesn’t it? … And very “not me.” But I did. Then I walked out the door.
How did you end up with the honor of directing and helping to create the books for the high school edition productions of Rent, Les Miz, and Spring Awakening?
LV: In 2001, I got a call from Steve Spiegel, then president of Music Theatre International in New York, who asked if I would be interested in doing a student pilot production of Les Misérables. I was stunned that he was asking me this, and my first response was to humbly say no. I just didn’t think I could do it, but I called him back a few days later, and he was delighted.
The publicity that the production generated became important to Truman. All of a sudden, we were in the Philadelphia papers, The New York Times, and many other publications. The Broadway-London producer of the show, Cameron Mackintosh, flew in from London to see the closing night performance. He spoke to the audience, signed autographs for the cast, and even attended the cast party. It was truly a magical evening.
For Rent, I went to New York and met with the trustees of the estate of Jonathan Larson and his father, Al. Freddie Gershon, the current president of MTI and John Prignano [MTI senior operations officer] made this happen. Al Larson flew in for the show, and we had a party in his honor but also for his Jonathan. Rent sold out within the first few days after the tickets went on sale. Even I had to beg and borrow for tickets, because I forgot to order mine!
As soon as I saw Spring Awakening and knew that MTI held the licensing for it, I called John Prignano and asked him if I could do the pilot. This musical was right in my sweet spot, and I think, of all the musicals I did, I wanted to do this show the most. I went to see it three times — something I rarely do — and I knew I had to do the show. There was nothing that I didn’t love about it. In 2012, we produced it.
How did Drama High happen?
LV: Michael Sokolove, the author of the book, was my student in high school. I knew then that he had this gift for writing. I was teaching English then — in the early ’70s — and his work was so head-and-shoulders above many in the class. He had already gone on to write for The New York Times and had written several books.
It’s our tradition at Truman to invite a former student back to be the keynote graduation speaker, so Michael was the perfect choice. At breakfast the morning after the speech, he spoke of writing a book about me at Truman. In typical fashion, I was not interested, but he was persistent. I had no idea how time-consuming and complicated the writing of a book can be. Mike stayed with me at Truman for two and a half years. He came to classes, met all the students, got in touch with graduates who were in the program, came to all the rehearsals — we did two full shows during his time with us: Spring Awakening and Good Boys and True, which went on to be performed at the International Thespian Festival as a main stage performance. He even came to that.
Now there’s the NBC television series Rise, inspired by Drama High. How did that happen? What has your role been as a consultant?
LV: The book became a big success and was sold to New York producer Jeffrey Seller, who loved it and decided to make it into a TV series. Jeffrey enlisted the talents of writer Jason Katims, who wrote Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. Jason wrote a gorgeous pilot, and I was lucky enough to see the filming of some of it. It was astonishing. From there, it went to NBC and to its chairman, Robert Greenblatt, who liked it and greenlit the series.
I was a big fan of Friday Nights Lights. It’s the only boxed set of a TV series I’ve ever purchased. So, when I found out that Jason was writing it, I just felt like we had a gifted writer leading us and the pilot would be great … and it was.
What are your memories of being recognized as an outstanding theatre arts educator at the 2014 Ford’s Theatre Annual Gala in Washington, D.C.?
LV: One of the proudest, yet most humbling, moments in my life. First, I loved President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. They are the quintessence of American class, education, and integrity. My son, Tom, was with me for the presentation, and I can remember how we waited in the green room until we were introduced to the president and his wife. I almost felt like I was outside of my body; it was a spiritual moment.
I remember his hands, these long, slender, elegant hands. I was shaking hands with the most powerful man in the world, and yet it was so right, normal, and accessible. I even remember that Mrs. Obama and I had a short conversation about the upcoming clearance sale at J. Crew. We had a hearty laugh about that. Then we were taken to Ford’s Theatre, where we met Vice President Joe Biden and his lovely wife. I remember that he called me the “Philly Guy.”
One final question: As someone who taught them for four decades, what’s the same and what’s changed about today’s students from those you taught in the past?
LV: They are still hungry to learn and to risk. They are curious — don’t discourage them. Let them ask provocative questions in all areas. They still love school, even though they say that they hate it. They still can’t open their lockers. They’ll try to cut a class if they can away with it, and they’ll copy homework from somebody in the class. They live busier lives. They work more. They want to buy a car. Some have to help pay the mortgage. They have a lot more responsibility, because of the failure of marriage and the rise of divorce. They will almost always hope for the best.
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