The drama program ”” at Harry S. Truman High School ”” opened this year with one more deficit: its galvanizing teacher, Lou Volpe, retired in June after more than 40 years showing students in an economically slumped, culturally narrow community how to strive for excellence, grapple with challenging ideas, empathize with people different from themselves and enlarge their notions of who they might become. And he brought their theatrical achievements glowing national attention. Under Volpe’s direction, Truman students presented pilot high school versions of “Les MisÃ©rables,” “Rent” and “Spring Awakening” ”” premieres that would determine whether these shows would become available to high schools generally. (All three triumphed.)
Being available, however, hasn’t made all the plays Volpe directed popular Âchoices at other schools. Part of his success ”” pedagogical and theatrical ”” Sokolove suggests, comes from his “edgy” repertory. Not for the sake of sensation, but to engage kids in urgent contemporary social debate, he often selects works that raise the eyebrows, and even occasional ire, of local conservatives who object to frank representations of adolescent sexuality (hetero and homo), addiction, rebellion ”” the usual flash points in the old culture wars. Of the 25,000-plus high school theater programs in the country, fewer than 150 have produced “Rent.” At Truman, 300 kids ”” about one in five students there ”” auditioned for it. As one student tells Sokolove, confronting issues that make people uncomfortable is “one of the big reasons to do theater, right?…”
Sokolove, [once a Harry S. Truman High School student himself] landed in a literature class Volpe taught at the time. “Everyone in life needs to have had at least one brilliant, inspiring teacher,” he states. In Volpe, he found one. Read it all (emphasis mine).