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

by  Michael Sokolove

(Penguin , $27.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Michael Sokolove, who lives in Maryland, writes for The New York Times Magazine, and has published three previous books, including “The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw” and “Warrior Girls:Protecting our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports.” He’s been a frequent guest on TV and radio shows, including  “Good Morning America,”, “ESPN’s  Outside the Lines” and NPR’s  “Fresh Air,” “The Tavis Smiley Show” and “Only a Game.” While his journalistic topics range far and wide, he is known for his exploration of the sociology and culture of sports.

What is this book about?

Sokolove’s latest, however, is not about sports and the jocks who play them. This one is being called “Friday Night Lights meets Glee,” and it is about the incredible team spirit and life-changing potential of a great high school drama program, an aspect of education often – and sadly mistakenly – derided as a “frill.” Sokolove, who grew up in Levittown and was in the legendary theater company directed by teacher Lou Volpe at Harry S Truman High School, chronicles how the program has helped the struggling town and sent countless students on to careers in show business as Emmy-winning producers, entertainment executives, broadcasters and community-theater founders and more. The program is so respected that Broadway produces have been known to attend performances to see how well the kids put on a show or to try out more experimental shows before they are released for high school productions. Volpe has retired, but the show goes on in this well-reported and affectionate book.

Why you’ll like it:

The recent successes of such TV shows (and their spinoffs) as “High School Musical,” “Glee” and even “Smash” show how popular a good story about onstage and backstage doings can be. “Drama High” gives readers the real thing: an uplifting and behind-the-scenes story of how a great high school teacher can inspire kids to a lifetime of success, providing the have the talent and the determination to make the most of it. Deeply reported and deeply felt, this book is receiving standing ovations from readers and critics alike.

What others are saying:

Booklist says:  “Journalist Sokolove pays tribute to drama teacher Lou Volpe, who in the last 40 years has revolutionized the theater program at Harry S. Truman High School. Located in Levittown, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar town that has been on a slow economic downswing since the 1960s, Truman has become known for its drama program, thanks to Volpe, whose productions draw not only critical acclaim but also the attention of famous theater producers. A dedicated teacher who inspires loyalty in students past and present, Volpe often stages productions that are controversial but that he firmly believes his kids will relate to. During the season Sokolove spends at Truman, Volpe and his kids put on the play Good Boys and True and the musical Spring Awakenings—both of which address teen sexuality, angst, and reckless behavior. Volpe pushes his student actors hard, but for most of them, being in one of his productions is transformative. Many alums go on to pursue careers in theater or the arts. A powerful look at the way a dynamic and dedicated teacher can change lives.”

From Barnes & Noble: “The drama program at Harry S Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania is not your average HS theatre project. For one thing, it’s a national standout: Broadway producers travel to this unemployment plagued industrial town to see productions staged by its veteran drama director Lou Volpe. For another, its actors are not bound-for-glory rich kids; in the middle of rehearsal, you might expect to see one of the lead actors rush off stage and change into his or her Chick Fil-A uniform. Michael Sokolove’s Drama High captures the brilliance, grit, and determination of an exemplary teacher and his awe-inspiring students.”

Says The New York Times Book Review:  “…as much a personal memoir as it is equal parts admiring profile…tribute to the power of arts education and jeremiad on the evaporation of middle-class opportunity…[Sokolove] is conspicuously present, expressing astonishment at the work he witnesses, reflecting on his own upward trajectory and occasionally ranting, honorably, against the widening income gap and the “small-bore metrics” that have ruinously subsumed public education in recent years…Whether the fulfillment of a school’s mission must rely on a few heroic teachers, rather than be addressed institutionally and systemically, is not Sokolove’s subject. He shines a heartening light on how one of those passionate heroes devoted himself, as Volpe himself puts it, to educating, rather than training, young people.”

Library Journal says: “….The theater program at Truman has been so successful that when Music Theatre International, which licenses Broadway productions, looks for a school to pilot a high school version of a play, it often turns to the stage where the first high school versions of Rent and Spring Awakening were also performed. Sokolove … grew up in Levittown and is a former student of Volpe’s, and that experience informs his narrative. He chronicles the on- and off-stage lives of Volpe (who just retired after 44 years at Truman) and his students and writes movingly of the challenges they faced. VERDICT You don’t have to be a “Gleek” to enjoy this compelling account of the power of theater.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “… 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.”

When is it available?

The curtain’s up on this one now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.