In 2016, Playbill spoke to high school theatre educators around the country as part of our annual Back-to-School Week. Drama teacher Lou Volpe was one voice among many to champion the importance of arts education, so much so he was the subject of Michael Sokolove’s book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.
As the (now retired) drama director at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania, Volpe pushed boundaries in high school theatre. Truman High was the first high school in America to present a production of Rent and of Spring Awakening. In fact, Truman became one of the schools in Musical Theatre International’s pilot program—an initiative in which select high schools produce the MTI high school or full length productions before the licensing company finalizes the material for distribution at that age level.
Now, five years since its publication, the book has inspired the Jason Katims-created television series Rise. Here, we look back on his insights to see how his own work shines through actor Josh Radnor’s portrayal on television. (Rise airs Tuesdays at 9PM ET on NBC.)
About his passion for theatre:
Theatre, for many high school students, is a means to an end. When they enter your classroom in September, many are petrified to even speak their names. Theatre is the process by which many of them discover so much about who they are. It's a slow process and you have to be very patient with them. It's a challenge because each student progresses at his/her own pace. But eventually you begin to see them blossom, become more confident, enjoy their triumphs and failures with dignity and by year's end... for so many of them, there is so much personal growth. Only theatre (and the arts) can do this and to see this happen every year is the basis of the love of theatre that teachers of theatre enjoy.
The biggest challenges young performers face today:
Young performers today are, for the most part, highly educated with degrees from some of the best theatre schools in the country. The competition for roles seems to be more intense and to be able to handle the rejection of not being cast is a huge obstacle for young actors. They need to make a huge commitment to their dreams of becoming an actor and to keep trying no matter how often they are disappointed. In this "microwave world" of instant gratification, this is one of the greatest challenges they must overcome. The competition is fierce and is only for those who are intensely committed to their craft.
How has the industry changed over the course of your teaching career?
Personally, many high schools are now doing shows that were "taboo" in the early days. I was very lucky to be able to pilot shows like Les Miserables, Rent and Spring Awakening. I'm not sure that would have happened when I first began teaching.
The "truth" about theatre:
If you approach the performing arts honestly and openly, they will permit you to see inside yourself and know who you are as a human being. They are capable of fusing the physical and the spiritual in an artist and nothing else can do that. Performing arts challenges the artist to search and find truth and beauty in whatever they do whether it's singing a Sondheim masterpiece or dancing a Balanchine pas de deux. Art never compromises truth. It's either art or artifice. I had a huge sign in my classroom that said "Art is craft, not inspiration." Stephen Sondheim said that and truer words about art were never spoken.
What piece of advice do you hope all of your students will carry with them?
There's a huge difference between being an actor and a star. Acting requires commitment to craft and you are never finished learning. It's a lifelong commitment. Some of the great actors (Ian McKellen, Robert Duvall, Maggie Smith, James Earl Jones, Judi Dench) of our time continue to learn and to teach others. There are thousands of supremely talented actors whose names we don't know. If you can accept that, then continue. Also... I urge them to take risks in life and not be afraid to fail. Being ordinary is a cardinal sin. Celebrate your uniqueness.
What have your students taught you?
In many ways, they know as much (or even more) than you and you have to remain open and accessible to new their ideas and suggestions. If you do, you'll learn so much and in the process they will keep you young at heart. Be fearless in certain situations...cross the line...push the envelope.
Proudest moment as a teacher?
There are too many to pick just one but last year I was selected by The Ford Theatre in Washington as their Arts Teacher of the Year. In addition to several celebrations at the White House and The Capitol, I was honored to have a short meeting and photo session with President Obama and Mrs. Obama and met and had a great conversation with Vice-President and Mrs. Biden. I received an award at Ford's Theatre in front of Senators, Representatives, actors, etc. and I was introduced to the audience by James Earl Jones, Laura Benanti and Cheyenne Jackson. But the best thing about this experience was that my son Tom was with me and shared in these moments, and I never stopped thinking about my students at Truman High School... they were they reason I was there in the first place and I wished they had been with me.
On being the subject of the book Drama High:
Mike spent 2+ years with me and my students and the book was met with great success. I love that I have the ability to relieve my career through that book. It keeps my memories of what I loved so much alive.