Harry S. Truman High School, set on a slight incline, is a monument to utility, neither inviting nor forbidding. Buffered on three sides by athletic fields, the school rises to just one story. Its exterior is brick -- not red brick but a dull yellowish hue, the color of putty. A framed black-and-white photograph of the nation's thirty-third president occupies a wall just inside the front entrance. Several trophy cases commemorate the school's mostly unsuccessful athletic teams, and a big bulletin board lists the colleges that current seniors have been admitted to, along with the dollar amounts of scholarships they were awarded.
From there, the building unfolds into a grid of long hallways, lined with lockers, that come together to form lonely interior courtyards. An energetic janitorial staff buffs the floors each afternoon to a high gloss. The classroom clocks tell the right time.
Lou Volpe's classroom, far from the main entrance, is furnished with old couches and living room chairs, donated stuff that otherwise might have gone to Goodwill or landfills. The bookshelves, windowsills, radiators, and all other flat surfaces are piled high with anthologies of plays, copies of scripts, and videotapes and soundtracks of Broadway productions. Several mobiles hang from the ceiling, some low enough that a tall person has to duck around them. It is distinctly his room, even without the huge banner that says, in red block letters, LOU IS BACK. The sign appeared out of nowhere some years ago -- tacked up to the rear wall when Volpe arrived one morning -- and he knew not to ask too much about its provenance, though word did eventually filter down that some students had pilfered it from a local used car lot and that "Lou" was apparently one of the salesmen. "I really hope this other Lou doesn't miss it too much," Volpe says with a mischievous grin when I ask him about it one day.
As we talk, he is walking a circular route around the classroom, straightening and fluffing the upholstery on the couches and chairs, a ritual he performs numerous times a day, always in a clockwise direction. It is September 2010, about a week into a new school year. The final afternoon bell has just sounded, and the room is beginning to fill up with students arriving to audition for the fall play.
"Yo, Volp," a boy says as he walks past. "Hey, Krause," he adds with a nod to Tracey Krause, a former student of Volpe's and now a teacher at the school and his indispensable assistant director.
Another boy breezes in and comments on Volpe's attire, a frequent topic of conversation, and what looks to him like peace signs on Volpe's belt. "Yes," he says, "I got this belt at Woodstock. I was there, you know." The student laughs, knowing that Volpe would never have been anywhere near the mud and chaos of Woodstock.
Most students walk in and silently take seats. They have already endured a seven-hour school day. They plop down on the furniture and enter that resting mode of teenagers in which they are neither fully asleep nor awake but are nonetheless utterly aware. The more crowded the room gets -- meaning the more competition there will be for parts -- the quieter it becomes.
The play being auditioned for on this day is called "Good Boys and True." It is a daring choice for a high school, but a typical one for Volpe -- a searingly intense drama in which a secretly recorded sex tape is discovered at a high school and a golden-boy athlete is implicated. In the play, the school's football captain has picked up a girl who works at a food court in a shopping mall, and on that day, the first time he meets her, without her knowledge he films them having sex together. The videotape is found in a locker and then viewed by his teammates. The boy's face is obscured, so his identity cannot be known for sure.
The story moves forward in a series of painful unravelings -- the school is scandalized; a family fractures; a gay relationship is revealed; a deep friendship between two boys rips apart. It is the kind of material that grips high school actors and audiences but terrifies school administrations. Volpe will be the first to put this drama on a high school stage.
Some fifty students wait in the classroom to compete for just six parts -- three female, three male. Volpe speaks for a moment before they begin. "I hate to use the word relevant, but this play is," he says. "It feels very now. Like it's something that could happen here, or just about anywhere."
The initial event in the play has the same effect as someone throwing a stone into a pond, he tells them. A calm is disturbed, even if it does not attract much notice at first. Ripples flow outward. It's one of Volpe's favorite analogies. Another is the concept of doors opening -- one door opens, revealing a secret of some kind, then another and another. Once opened, the doors cannot be closed. It is how he sees theater and life, including his own.
He makes clear what it will take to win a role. "We're going to need to see how far you can go. We need to see the fire. If it's anger, if it's pain, you can't be afraid to go to that place. I'm not talking about shouting. I mean something you find deep inside."
Everyone understands. Volpe plays are full emotional commitments. And they are competitive. Nobody gets a pass into a Truman production. You can be a lead in one play and get left out of the next. It happens all the time. "Volpe and Krause love the 'new,' " is how one of the girls in the room that day puts it. "They love that new blood, that undiscovered talent, so you've always got to watch your back for what's coming up behind you."
Just a week or so earlier, in New York, I had visited with Nicole Sabatini, a student of Volpe's in the mid-1990s. We sat in a coffee shop in the basement of 30 Rockefeller Center. A slightly built former dancer, she worked upstairs as a vice president at Bravo. "A lot of us had an idea who Mr. Volpe was even before we got into high school," she said. "You wanted to be part of what he created. You looked forward to it. My first year I auditioned for "Little Shop of Horrors" and didn't get a part, but he told me it was going to be a good three years for me, that he was impressed by me.
"I got leads in two musicals after that. Then in my senior year, I didn't get a part in the drama, and then it got picked for the Main Stage at the national festival . I went to the festival as a stage manager. I had one job to do -- press 'Play' on a cassette player to turn on some music. I'm not gonna lie -- it hurt. But it was a big lesson for me. I had done my best at the auditions, but it wasn't good enough. It happens sometimes when you're around other people who are talented."
Adapted from "Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater" by Michael Sokolove, by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Sokolove.