SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. And now...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Five, six, seven, eight.
SIMON: In the world of American theater, there's Broadway, off-Broadway, the Goodman and the Guthrie; and then Harry S. Truman High in Levittown, Pa., where for four decades a drama legend named Lou Volpe has provided a kind of theatrical test kitchen for famous, even edgy shows, before they become considered classics in high school theater programs.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A CHORUS LINE")
UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMERS: (Singing) God I hope I get it, I hope I get it. How many people does he need? How many people does he need?
SIMON: And over those decades, Lou Volpe has sent scores of students out into lives in the theater, but he's also enriched the lives of thousands of students who may never get closer to live theater again than a shopping mall Santa, but have had their lives and outlooks energized by Lou Volpe.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "RENT")
UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMERS: (Singing) La vie Boheme.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing) Two days of inspiration, playing hooky, making something out of nothing, the need to express, to communicate...
SIMON: Michael Sokolove, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, was once one of Lou Volpe's students. He's written a book about the director's last teaching years, "Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater." Michael Sokolove joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
MICHAEL SOKOLOVE: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: And joining us from New York is Antonio Addeo, an up-and-coming young actor who is a graduate of Truman High and Lou Volpe's drama program. Thank you for being with us.
ANTONIO ADDEO: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Michael, let's - of course - begin with you. You're from Levittown itself.
SOKOLOVE: I am from Levittown.
SIMON: Would it be fair to say this is an unexpected place for a drama program like this?
SOKOLOVE: Yes, I think it is because it is not perceived by its neighbors to be a place where anything great comes from. It's a lower-middle-class, struggling, former blue-collar community, and it is - frankly- looked down upon by many of its neighboring schools, and many of the people in wealthier communities in Bucks County. Yet there is this soaring program that does drama at a very, very high level and has for many years now.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG FROM MUSICAL, "RENT" )
SIMON: I wonder if you both can help us appreciate what he's like in the classroom.
SOKOLOVE: I fell in love with the way he spoke. He was not a teacher who was a showman. He just had this beautiful way of talking about literature. And, you know, you never wanted the class to end. There was always a moment when he stopped, and he wanted to know what you thought. He just had this beautiful way of both connecting with the material, and then connecting with his students and sharing this passion - and wanting you to sort of have that passion as well.
SIMON: Antonio Addeo?
ADDEO: As far as the environment in the classroom, when he does open it up for discussion, you never feel like what you're saying is the wrong thing - or is the right thing, and that's the only way that everyone else in the room should think about it. He valued your opinion and just made it such a welcoming, relaxing environment for learning theater in.
SIMON: Michael Sokolove, there came a time in your life, as a student, when Lou Volpe thought he had the perfect role for you, right?
SOKOLOVE: (Laughter) Yes, I was at Harry Truman High a long time ago - back in the early '70s - and at that point, there was a big divide between students who saw themselves as athletes, and students who may have been attracted to the theater. I was on the baseball team, and I was a basketball player as well. And there came a point when I got cut from the basketball team.
And this was a time when Lou's theater department was really just starting, and he was reaching out to students rather than maybe auditioning them. And he said: I have a role for you. I want you to be the shy, younger brother in "Come Blow Your Horn."
And it really, to tell you the truth, was not even a conversation. And I said no, I wouldn't do it. I was his very devoted English student, and he was my mentor in that way, but being up on that stage was just not something that I was going to do. And I regret it.
SIMON: Lou Volpe is not the kind of high school drama instructor that will do just "Music Man" one year, and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" the next, and then repeat them. He really does like what - for lack of a better term, we'll call edgier material, doesn't he?
SOKOLOVE: Yes, he prides himself on that. He has does "Spring Awakening." He was the first high school director to do "Rent." A lot of high schools still won't do "Rent," even though we may consider it mainstream. There's a student who was there when I was researching the book - named Courtney Meyer(ph) - and she said to me, well, theater is where you deal with stuff that's uncomfortable to deal with in real life. And I certainly agree with that.
You know, this is a place for both the actors and the high school audiences to deal with really uncomfortable topics. And that's a traditional function of theater. That's one of the beautiful things about theater. But it's not something that is all that common in high school still.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "RENT")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) (Singing) They used to tie you up.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) (Singing) It's a living.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) (Singing) I didn't recognize you without the handcuffs.
SIMON: I want to ask you both - Michael, of course, you spent so much time, as the author of this book, and of course earlier, when you were a student; but also you, Antonio, from the advantage of having been - the historical perspective of having been away from Levittown for what, two or three years, at this point?
ADDEO: Going on five.
SIMON: Going on five, OK. Is there an intensity to teenage years that make it fit nicely with drama?
ADDEO: I think so. For me, you know, it was such a way to let out, you know, the stress, any worries. You become another person. You can just be in the now of this character. So it really does help with that intensity.
SOKOLOVE: What I saw was students in this town, which grew up around a steel mill that no longer exists, whose parents may now work in big-box stores or warehouses; what I saw was families and kids going through really difficult things - you know, home foreclosures, you know, and then their own things - you know, they had relationships, you know, they had all the teenage things. But particularly in this town, Lou asking them to do really difficult theater was, in some ways, easier because they were having difficult lives. And they welcomed putting difficult things on stage, and they weren't scared of it. They weren't scared of those emotions in the ways that more privileged children might be because as - you know, privileged parents and raising privileged kids - want to protect them from everything. And these were kids who weren't protected. They couldn't be protected. And that, to me, was one of the great beauties, and is one of the great beauties, of this program.
SIMON: Michael Sokolove in our studios, thanks very much for being with us.
SOKOLOVE: It was great to be here.
SIMON: And Antonio Addeo in New York, you'll be hearing from him in the future.
ADDEO: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Michael Sokolove's new book: "Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater." Thanks so much, both of you.
SOKOLOVE: Thank you.
ADDEO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.