Thursday, May 22, 2014

Drama High - Michael Sokolove

Drama High: The Incredible True Story
of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling
Town, and the Magic of Theater
I have a confession to make. 

I was a drama nerd in high school. Well, to be technical, my loyalties were split between choir and theatre. I was president of my choir and lead in the school musical my senior year. Rehearsals, concerts, and performances. My whole life revolved around them. I even got my first kiss on stage. Most embarrassing moment of my entire life, and yet one of my favorite high school memories as well. I'm telling you....I was 100% committed. 

That being said, you can understand why I snagged a copy of Michael Sokolove's Drama High when I had a chance. The nonfiction book tells the story of one of the finest high school theatre programs in the country, led by the venerable Lou Volpe. 

Truman High, which lies in a small, struggling New Jersey town, has become renown for their high quality productions. The school premiered the high school versions of Les Misérables, Rent, and Spring Awakening, all under Volpe's direction. 

Sokolove attended the school back in Volpe's early days, when he was only an English teacher involved in the theatre program on the side. Things have changed drastically since those days and, now, Volpe teaches a full curriculum of theatre classes in addition to guiding young actors through notoriously tough material.

I absolutely loved reading about the program and the people involved in it. The story, at its core, is about the people, not the program, but the theatre bent certainly made it more interesting and relatable for me. 

Sokolove does a wonderful job presenting Volpe. The man comes across as tough, but caring. He knows his students well and truly challenges them.  Says Sokolove, "Volpe's mission is the same as it has always been - to fill up his students with art, literature, and beauty and put material in front of them, rich in content and complexity, that no one else will."

He spends a bit of time discussing education reforms as well. After all, fine arts education is not exactly at its height. It's the first to get cut when schools hit financial troubles. Volpe's success has kept the Truman program safe, even though Levittown has certainly deteriorated since its days as a factory town.  I loved Sokolove's concise way of evaluating current teacher assessments:
"Any system that constricts teachers - holds them to small-bore metrics, punishes them for forces outside their control, discourages their creativity and spontaneity, chips away at their humanity - is a bad system."
My favorite quote, though, comes from a section where Sokolove compares involvement in theatre to involvement in sports. This debate is one Kevin and I have continually, as we represent both categories of extra curricular activities respectively. We playfully bicker over which will be best for our children. Sokolove puts it so eloquently:
"In so many ways, theater teachers the opposite of what I learned in sports, in which the model is that there is no self, no emotional landscape or core. Team sport is all about grit and team, about submerging self. To look within, to feel or imagine, is not encouraged."
I love that quote because he so captures what is good and bad about both activities. Both are valuable and both teach important lessons. This revelation also gave me some insight as to why my personality and interests have developed so differently than others around me, including my husband. It just means we have a great balance in our home, right?

This book is a wonderful read for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the magic of theatre translated to written word. If you were a theatre geek in high school, you cannot miss this one. Even if you were not, you can appreciate the beautifully told, deeply human stories of the people at Truman. Theatre at Truman is for everyone, from nerds to jocks to theatre geeks; the book follows suit.

Pages: 352
Date Completed: April 18, 2014

Did you do theatre in high school? What was your favorite production?

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