My friend Michael Sokolove (aka Mr. Ann Gerhart) has a new book out, Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.
It’s a great read, even if you think you know everything about the experience of high-school drama clubs, “Glee,” etc. I have three copies (ALL GONE) to give away and I’ll get them signed for you this weekend at the book party! How to win: Email me. Don’t reply to this blog post; don’t send me a Facebook message. Email me: hank [at] hank’sfirstandlastname [dot] com. First-come, first-served! Good luck! (Break a leg?) UPDATE: They’re all gone!
Drama High has already gotten good reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere. Here’s my review from Goodreads:
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The author is a friend; I gave it a very solid 4+ stars and rounded up to 5, because that’s what friends are for. So there’s your disclosure, now here’s your honest review:
Many a features reporter (including this one) has delved into the “making of the high school play” story as a means of telling an epic narrative, intending to capture something fraught and beautiful about teenagers and teachers and dedication and art. In the narrative, it is essential to note that the arts are always on the losing end of the public-education equation; marginalized by our cultural fixation on athletics, first, and quantifiable “results” (testing), as a close second.
“Drama High” is so much more. Mostly it’s a profile of a man – the indomitable Lou Volpe, head of the theater department at Truman High School, in the original (now far faded) American tract-house suburb of Levittown, outside Philadelphia. Anyone who has a passing interest in theater or education or the world of teenagers will be interested in this book. It doesn’t just follow the “making of” a school play or two. It’s an examination of why something so special was allowed to thrive in a place where everything else was in a state of decline. There’s a lot I found fascinating about this book, not the least of which is Sokolove’s ability to weave in details of his own life (Sokolove had Volpe as a teacher 40 years ago) without once intruding on the larger story. It’s a tender book, but it’s also a tough peeling-back of some of the more futile details of everyday life in a declining economy, where mediocrity rules all things. Except in this particular drama department, which is almost brutally and even refreshingly meritocratic.
There’s a lot to talk to about in this book – I think it would be a great choice for book clubs that periodically tire of novels. Two things I thought were really smart:
• Early on, while auditioning boys for a play that will deal with some frank sexual content, Sokolove examines one of the great heartbreaks of high school drama club: Although the theater life has forever been a refuge for gay males (Volpe included), it cruelly rejects them as leading men. This is, on some level, horrifyingly unfair and yet, when you think about it, completely logical for the determined director who seeks perfection in all things. But is it right? I would have liked to read more about that.
• One of the book’s most intelligent analyses is when we learn the 10 most popular plays and musicals performed today in American high schools. The list has barely moved a stone since you or I or anybody was in high school. While Volpe and his kids take on the honor and challenge of being the first U.S. high school to mount a production of “Spring Awakening,” everyone else is still doing the same shows they were doing 20, 30, 40 and, in some cases (“You Can’t Take It With You”), 70 years ago. As Sokolove writes, this is as ludicrous as the school football coach running a playbook from the 1940s. Yet schools persist in choosing safe, time-tested musicals as a way to avoid controversy – and, consequently, we lose all the great teachable moments that come in staging theater that provokes questions or makes its audience (and cast) see things in a new way. Another round of “The Music Man” and “Our Town” does nobody any favors, least of all our kids. Why is high school theater preserved in amber?