Theater is so popular at Harry S Truman High School, in Levittown, Pa., that almost half of its students take at least one drama class before graduation. The man responsible for the drama program’s success is Lou Volpe, who was Michael Sokolove’s favorite teacher from high school. Sokolove, a writer for the New York Times Magazine and the husband of a Washington Post editor, Ann Gerhart, decided to tell Volpe’s story, but not just the obvious one about an inspirational teacher. A good reporter can make almost any story interesting. A great reporter makes it blossom. With the sort of diligent, thorough and imaginative reporting not seen enough these days, Sokolove not only brings a teacher, his students and their community to life, he also opens the story to larger matters: the economy, education, the arts and even sexuality.
Levittown was a suburban planned community laid out in the 1950s that provided entry-level homeownership for working-class whites. (Blacks were not allowed to buy in, and owners were forbidden to sell to them.) When Sokolove was growing up there, it was a time of upward mobility for Levittowners: Well-paying jobs were available at the nearby U.S. Steel and 3M plants. But now the factories are closed, and Levittown suffers from Rust Belt economic stagnation.
Volpe has become “like the winning football coach in some down-on-its-luck Ohio or Texas town,” Sokolove writes. “Schools with vastly greater financial resources, boasting higher-achieving students born to wealthier parents, cannot match the quality and accomplishment of Truman Drama.” Volpe’s students don’t just do staples of high school theater like Our Town or Oklahoma! Producer Cameron Mackintosh made a special trip to Levittown to see Volpe’s production of Les Miserables, the first ever staged by a high school. Mackintosh was so impressed that he agreed to let Music Theatre International license the musical for high school performance, and Volpe and his students began to do test performances for MTI of other Broadway hits, including Rent and Spring Awakening, shows that center on topics such as AIDS, abortion, teen pregnancy and suicide.
Volpe attributes the success of his program to the community: “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.” In a town where economic survival takes priority, there are no theater moms hanging around to protest that their kids weren’t given better parts, and few busybodies to complain about the controversial subject matter of the plays.
In most schools, the artsy kids and the jocks form antagonistic cliques. But Volpe loves to take athletes and make them actors because they bring a physical discipline to their performance. Sokolove watches Volpe direct Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s play Good Boys and True, from its first rehearsals through to the prolonged standing ovations it received, first at Truman, then at a regional drama festival, and finally at the International Thespian Festival in Nebraska.
The central characters are two prep school boys, Brandon and Justin. Though Brandon is ostensibly straight, he has let Justin, who is gay, perform oral sex on him. The crisis in the play comes when a tape of Brandon having sex with a girl is discovered, and Justin suspects that Brandon, afraid that others know about their relationship, let it be found to demonstrate his heterosexuality.
In Volpe’s production, the parts are played by baseball player Zach Philippi and lacrosse player Bobby Ryan. When Philippi’s father, a sanitation worker, learned of his son’s interest in theater, he called him “a fag,” but on opening night, he praises the boy, though with one reservation: “I thought he was a little too convincing, but I guess that’s a good thing.” Ryan is teased by one of his schoolmates, but he shuts him up: “I’m playing a character. You get that concept, right? It’s a play, dude.”
When Volpe produced Rent, the part of the drag queen was played by an openly gay student who received the loudest applause every night. Sokolove reflects, “In my day, something like that would have been received as a joke or a freak show. The people on their feet would have been laughing. But that had not been the case.”
Volpe’s students are often underachievers in traditional academic fields, but his “program is like a laboratory for the concept of multiple intelligences, the idea that people learn in different ways,” a radical concept in an age of standardized tests, “of No Child Left Behind and of unyielding educational metrics.” His mission is “to fill up his students with art, literature, and beauty and put material in front of them, rich in content and complexity.” That he has succeeded in opening the minds of his students and the community validates the worth of arts classes, invariably the first to go when drastic education cuts are mandated, as Pennsylvania’s governor recently did.
Levittown receives a different sort of cut at the end of Sokolove’s book: Volpe retires. But he leaves the program in the hands of Tracey Krause, his former student, who returned to Truman after college to be his assistant. The show goes on.
Charles Matthews reviewed this book for the Washington Post.