Wednesday, September 25, 2013

If Life's a Stage, Then All School is Acting Class

Michael Sokolove, Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater

You may not know Lou Volpe’s name, but if you’ve ever seen or acted in a high school production of Les Miserables or Rent, you owe him your thanks. His trailblazing theatre program at Truman High, in Levittown, Pennsylvania, has hosted the public school debuts of these and other storied Broadway plays, proving their viability as amateur productions. In Michael Sokolove’s remarkable biography, Volpe reminds us why education still matters.

For someone who’s contributed so much to amateur theatre, Volpe’s circumstances seem remarkably humble. He’s spent his entire career in one school, cultivating one community’s kids with such dogged persistence that some of his students are third-generation. While his community has crumbled, taking conventional academics with it, Volpe has persevered in an unprestigious art. More important, he has produced graduates ready for adult life.

Volpe’s career is inextricable from Levittown itself. Like its more prestigious Long Island cousin, Levittown, PA, metastasized during the post-WWII building boom. It was a good union town, sending countless husbands and sons to good-paying steel mill jobs. When the mills closed in the 1970s, it left a town unprepared. Now countless grandchildren of original residents, who bought amid hopeless optimism, stay because they can’t afford to leave.

Lou Volpe
Volpe began teaching English in 1969, and theatre dropped into his lap a few years later. He watched Truman High, a compromise school born from an unpopular merger, struggle to find its identity, with little history and lackluster sports. In an episode so unlikely it defies synopsis, a popular athlete quit wrestling to act in one of Volpe’s plays, giving Truman theatre an anti-establishment edge most theatre teachers would envy.

Combining dumb luck with natural curiosity and an immigrant son’s pertinacity, Volpe parlayed early successes into a theatre program so fruitful, even New York and London producers seek his assistance. Truman High’s cool kids join theatre like other schools’ BMOCs join football or business. Theatre, and Volpe, have become Truman’s biggest asset. But in Sokolove’s telling, Volpe’s most successful alumni take lessons from him far exceeding theatre.

Sokolove, who studied under Volpe before theatre found him, entwines Volpe’s biography and career with larger trends in American society and education. While suburban poverty slowly destroys Levittown, and education standards come to favor quantifiable job skills, Volpe persists in something older and more fundamental. Drawing his theatre students from all economic and academic strata, his program rewards one core value: self-discipline.

Michael Sokolove
I suspect Sokolove and Volpe share my opinion that schools do students a severe disservice by fitting them for careers. Life’s most important lessons cannot be tested on a Scantron sheet. Current attempts at standardizing education reward memorizing facts, and discourage individual curiosity. Sokolove reveals recent trends in education that even I had not known, seemingly designed to leave students helpless, apathetic, and dependent on authority.

But I always forget: that’s probably not accidental, is it? Dispirited students graduate to become excellent office or factory drones.

By contrast, Volpe’s theatre program cultivates character and moxie. Sokolove depicts Volpe pushing his actors, demanding they know themselves so they can create their characters. While many of Volpe’s best actors struggle academically, they find his theatre richly rewarding, in ways governments cannot test. Sokolove interviews Volpe’s alumni, who report, sometimes decades later, that they remember Volpe’s greatest lesson: strength of character.

These aren’t students born to luxury, the stereotypical rich arts kids. Many must leave rehearsal early because their families rely on the money from their after-school jobs. Yet even Volpe’s technical positions become hotly contested prizes, which may surprise theatre teachers who’ve gone begging for someone to run the light board. The prize is not necessarily theatre itself; Volpe opens doors into students that regular textbook academics never even acknowledge.

When Volpe retired in 2013, hundreds of his alumni returned for his final show. Some have risen in theatre’s highly competitive ranks, propelled by their experience with a teacher who demanded the best, then showed them how to reach it. Many others, though, left theatre after high school. The most important lesson Volpe taught them wasn’t theatre. It was to know themselves, and always act on what they know.

Sokolove doesn’t disguise his personal affection for Lou Volpe. Nor should he. Most successful people have one teacher who persuaded them to exceed themselves and break new ground. The ripples Lou Volpe created have impact beyond one underfunded school, or one dilapidated suburb. This book reminds us what good teachers do, and should inspire coming generations to discover that one glimmering truth.

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