A journalist’s account of the final years in a drama teacher’s storied career at a high school in Levittown, Pa., a former mill city fallen on hard times.
Harry S. Truman High was “at best, second rate,” writes New York Times Magazine contributor Sokolove (Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports, 2008, etc.). But it was also the home of an acclaimed drama program that drew attention from the likes of Cameron Mackintosh, producer of such smash hits as Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. The man behind the program, Lou Volpe, was the main reason for its amazing success. Sokolove follows his former teacher and two groups of students Volpe worked with at Truman High between 2010 and 2012. Demanding, complex and sensitive, Volpe, who was also Sokolove’s high school English teacher, taught by instinct rather than formula. The main lesson he passed on to his students was that dramatic art was not just a way of expressing feelings, but also of “fully embracing, and understanding, life.” Volpe never shied away from controversial subject matter, nor did he balk at having his students perform plays that had only been done by professional theater companies. In the two years the book covers, this gifted teacher brought two sexually explosive plays—Good Boys and True and Spring Awakening—to the Truman stage. Volpe showed his students, who ranged from drama “regulars” to athletes to talented unknowns, how to harness the discomfort that often characterized their lives and channel it into their art. The results were astonishing by most measures but ordinary by the Truman drama program’s standards. Good Boys earned the class a berth at a prestigious high school theater festival, and Volpe’s version of Spring Awakening received the nod from its Broadway producers to be performed at other high schools.
A memorable, uplifting story about a man who helped students create meaning, hope and magic for themselves and their beleaguered community.