With school back in session, the month of September is a time for reflection about education. I recently read Drama High, which is a nonfiction account of Lou Volpe’s prosperous career as a teacher and award-winning theater director at Truman High School. This book was the inspiration behind NBC’s drama, Rise, which was cancelled. However, season one is still available for streaming on Hulu, and the soundtrack can be streamed on Apple Music.
Through the beginning of the book, it becomes quite apparent that author Michael Sokolove is a writer for the New York Times Magazine, as the writing flows easily and there is excellent pacing. The story itself is compelling and suspenseful as Sokolove writes about two Truman shows, Good Boys and True, and Spring Awakening. He is selective with word choice and includes enticing details that bring the magic of theater to life on the page. I could feel the excitement and nervousness when the students auditioned for Spring Awakening. I felt the bittersweet moments when the curtain closed on a 2013 production of Godspell, which was Volpe’s final show before his retirement. Volpe comes across as a highly intelligent educator, with a keen eye and unmatched enthusiasm for theater. After seeing Rise, I had always wondered if there was any truth to the action occurring on the show. While the show was entirely fictitious, it was enlightening to read Drama High and uncover what life really was like for the students at Truman. Some pages were melancholy and contained heavy subject matter. My heart aches for all of the troubles and tragedies the students have endured over their lives. It was hard to read about their tough journeys. For these young actors and actresses, the theater was one place where they felt heard and could truly express themselves on a whole other level. Volpe had a way of bringing emotion and raw vulnerability out of these students. He could see them for who they really were without passing judgment and lent an ear when they needed to vent. He, as well as his assistant, Tracey Krause, cared about their students’ well-being and were always there for them. In fact, Krause currently works as Truman’s theater director.
In the first part of the book, Sokolove recounts the events that transpired during the production of Good Boys and True. There were only six roles in this play, and Sokolove provides details on the actors’ lives outside of the stage. However, I found myself mixing up the actors’ names and I kept on having to go back and figure out who was who. Also, I am not familiar with Good Boys and True at all, so when Sokolove referred to the characters and mentioned the actors’ roles, I was even more confused than I was before.
Also, the book jumps around at times, as Volpe’s childhood is detailed in chapter three, but the rest of the story about his personal life, including his divorce, is all found in chapter ten. I would have preferred if the chapters about Volpe’s personal life were combined, as it would have been easier to follow.
Aside from those flaws, the book has plenty of heart and is quite engrossing. Sokolove did not perform in theater in high school, so any words pertaining to theater can be understood through context clues. I’d also advise that this book is highly specific to the subject matter, so I would caution future readers that they should at least have some interest in Levittown, education, or high school theater.