Karen Heller: Drama teacher's decades of awakenings

Lou Volpe directs his student cast during a rehearsal for "Spring Awakening," the Tony-winning musical dealing with tough issues.
Lou Volpe directs his student cast during a rehearsal for "Spring Awakening," the Tony-winning musical dealing with tough issues. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

Since 1969, Lou Volpe has directed Truman High students in Levittown in 120 school productions.

Posted: October 26, 2011

Drama teacher Lou Volpe has been at Levittown's Truman High forever. Truly, since 1969. A girl in the current production is the daughter of a munchkin in his earlier Wizard of Oz and the niece of Snoopy in his You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

That doesn't mean Mr. Volpe, 63, isn't about change. He's all about change. He was the first teacher to stage a high school production of Rent. His production of Les Mis - with a cast and crew of 127! - is the definitive school production. He won Sir Cameron Mackintosh's blessing after the British theater impresario, arriving in this hardscrabble town in a three-limo caravan from Manhattan, attended the pilot performance.

Now, Mr. Volpe, supportive, inspiring and funny, is directing the debut high school production of Spring Awakening, the Tony-winning musical that addresses child abuse, abortion, homosexuality, rape, religious authority, and suicide to a rock score. Not exactly The Sound of Music, but parents are supportive of the program's ambition and professionalism.

If Mr. Volpe receives approval from Music Theater International, the top licensing firm of Broadway shows, as he did with his 2001 Les Mis, then his rendition will become the de facto version for thousands of future student productions, a heady honor for a school in this working-class town that doesn't receive many. Mr. Volpe has directed more than 120 school productions, and five have been included in the esteemed annual Thespian Festival in Nebraska.

Spring Awakening's 19-member cast has been rehearsing since early August. That's right, August. Students, using cardboard tubes for the handheld mikes they'll eventually hold, are practicing two hours every weekday, seven hours on Saturdays, for four performances Nov. 17 to 19. Music Theater International executives and Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik are scheduled to attend.

Mr. Volpe is one of those exceptional teachers who changes lives. If a student is lucky, he may have one or two. Volpe put struggling Levittown's Truman High on the map. The school, with 1,575 students, is more celebrated for theater and the debate team than athletics or graduates attending top four-year colleges. Most students can't afford to look outside the state system. As Mr. Volpe says, "Many kids are working to help their parents pay the mortgage."

Several Truman graduates now work in entertainment, though that isn't Mr. Volpe's mission. "I want them to feel very safe in this environment, free from ridicule, free from judgment." He tells them, "I want you to find out who you are, and become more aware of yourself and the person you can be."

Theater "builds trust and, once students find that, they really blossom," says Mr. Volpe, who loves enlisting the athletes and the shy kids. "The best thing you can hear as a teacher is, 'Thank you for finding that door for me, and finding a way to get through it, for showing me the way.' "

Tracey Krause, Class of 1993, called Mr. Volpe the day after graduation and said, 'I'm coming back to take your job.' " Not yet, but she's been his assistant director since '98. New York Times Magazine writer Michael Sokolove, who graduated in '74, is writing a book about his former teacher, school, and hometown scheduled for 2013 publication.

Georjenna Gatto, field hockey captain last fall, quit the sport for a lead role in Spring Awakening. "My teammates were completely supportive," Gatto says. "A lot of people think of Truman as a really bad school, a lot of fighting and violence," says junior Tyler Kelch, "but the theater department is the place to be."

At rehearsal, when the full cast performed "The Song of Purple Summer," Mr. Volpe drew both hands to his cheeks and said, "I've got chills. I've heard that number a million times, and you gave me chills." And the cast beamed, basking in their director's constant support.


Karen Heller:

Watch students rehearse for "Spring Awakening" at

www.philly.com/truman


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller

For "Spring Awakening" tickets and information, call 215-547-3000.

 

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