Be careful not to turn into a Volpeite

These were the words my ‘friend’ left me with after I made the cast of the school musical, a toned down version of Hair. ‘Volpeite’ was  a word–a name called, really–that some of my friends in Debate and Forensics called a person in theatre, stemming from the last name of our teacher and director–Lou Volpe. Was she issuing me a warning? Perhaps. However, the subtext of this statement was more likely a threat–‘become more like the drama kids, and I won’t be your friend’. It was a threat fulfilled, but as you can see from the picture below–I didn’t give a shit.

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Before a performance of Hair, 1996

Drama in most schools is kind of an island of misfit toys, and it still was at Harry S Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania; however, the distinction was that OUR drama program was a coveted island location. We were all misfits in a sense–coming from all walks of high-school life. Jocks, academics, populars, geeks–everyone was welcome. More than that–they were accepted. If you liked theatre, and especially if you were talented at it–the drama kids took you in as one of their own. That isn’t to say there wasn’t rivalry, bitterness, unrequited love, meltdowns, and the occasional case of ostracism. The thing was–we were our own little microcosm.

Michael Sokolove–himself a Truman alumni–has recently written a book about Truman’s drama program, Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.  The book is a mixture of memoir, biography (of Lou Volpe, our beloved teacher and director)/homage, and a history of Levittown. He never paints Volpe as a saint, but really looks into who Volpe IS, besides an awesome teacher and director.  What Sokolove really did was bring home the DRIVE that Volpe has, and utilised to make Truman’s drama program so well-renown. Volpe helped us feel accepted at a time when I think none of us really felt normal. Some were closer to him than others, but that’s only natural. And at times ‘Fun Lou’ (a name given while I was in high school that stuck for awhile) would have momentary lapses of…well, meanness. But those moments really seemed almost familial in their intent and delivery. We were a family. It sounds corny, and probably IS corny, but for those short few years–we were a family.

Sokolove also really looks into what makes and has made Levittown, well, Levittown. He looks at the ambition and talent of students, some of whom have bad family lives, multiple jobs, and even paroles. Levittown is a suburb and far from a paradise. In recent years, it has grown more and more dangerous even–news stories of people being robbed in their own driveways seem almost commonplace. And Truman High School has been looked down upon as a sort of poor relation for ages. We never really expected much, and in reality, didn’t always get much. What we DID get were some really FANTASTIC teachers. Teachers that made us think, and made us feel good about ourselves. Volpe did that for his students–when other schools, universities, and even the state didn’t believe–Volpe did. Sokolove brings all of this to light, while simultaneously giving us the specific tales of some students (author included), the high school, and Volpe himself. With all of these aspects, one might think this book a difficult one to read. It isn’t. Or, perhaps, I’m biased. I grew up in Levittown. I went to Truman High. And I was in drama. I was, for all intents and purposes, a Volpeite.

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PCFL Banquet, 1996

Originally, and continuously, I was a Debate nerd.
I started out trying events, mostly speech ones–poetry readings, declaration-making. I branched out and tried Lincoln-Douglas Debate, or LD for short. I liked to argue, so it suited me; however, my tendency to be fairly inarticulate when trying to illustrate a point meant that I never got past the ‘decent’ stage in that even. MY ‘event’ came to be Dramatic Interpretation, or DI, and I was lucky enough to be fairly decent at it–even going to Nationals my junior year (only to make the top 48). It might sound like bragging, but in all honesty–it scared the crap out of me. Every time. Every round was an audition–judges wrote notes, and scored you, based on…what? Good, solid opinion really. In a speech event like DI, you were giving a performance, a solo one–of an under 10-minute monologue or dialogue from a play. If any person outside of speech and debate were to witness one of these solo dialogue ‘performances’–they would think you were nuts. We couldn’t move, have props, or really do much of anything but SPEAK. I had tones of voice, accents–that was about all the arsenal we could rely on.

I bring up debate because, well, it was a really big part of my life. I really don’t want to minimise the role this program had in my life–it was HUGE, and still has a big spot in my heart. Most of my friends were also in Debate. It was the first safe haven I found at the big, bad high school as a sophomore (there were no freshman at Truman when I started in 1995). Carl Grecco, our teacher and coach, was an authority figure, but an almost fatherly one. We knew not to cross certain lines, but he was always there if we needed help in school or at home. As far as I know, no books have centered around the, now retired, and legendary Mr Grecco. Maybe one day, and I really believe that day should come.
Grecco and Volpe didn’t always see eye to eye. Debate and drama events sometimes overlapped. Even in my last year, I missed a show of the musical because I was at a Debate and Speech National qualifier.

The criteria in DI, that you had to stay in one spot, made me focus more on my voice, and how to project a character and characters to an audience. This really helped in theatre too, but it could also be a hindrance–I rarely felt comfortable using my body. This was also, in part, due to a lack of self-esteem. However, by my senior year–I was more comfortable. Auditioning in drama, and competing in debate never lost that edge, but I felt more confident, more ME, and more capable of my abilities.  A judge at a debate tournament gave me this note once, and I’ve never forgotten it, “You need to walk in here with that ethos veneer that says ‘I’m a national champion'”. I’ve never taken that as a slight, but as a reminder that I COULD do it, not only because I’d won things before, but because if I had confidence I could do just about anything. I’ve tried to apply that not only to drama and debate, but to high school, university, and just LIFE in general.

Drama became my life by senior year. I was dating a drama, eating with the drama kids (many days in the drama classroom), and most of my friends were in this group. We auditioned for scholarships, which, most of us won. Some of us got major scholarships to state schools that featured good drama programs. I never felt picked on, or bullied by these kids–sure, there were times where I felt left out, but I believe that to be mostly my doing. I was oddly both mature and unaware. By senior year, I’d lost many friends from debate–again, many from my own doing, but some from theirs. The girl who warned me about being a Volpeite–one of the latter, and to be fair, I’m sure neither of us mind.

Looking back is always a bittersweet thing. I LOVED drama and debate. There are times when I wish I had taken better advantage of them. One of those times was while reading Sokolove’s Drama High. Most of the time, high school seems more real, and more recent than it really is. That is, as far as I can tell, because while a lot of the high school experience is in a regimented black and white, or, a limited spectrum, Truman drama and debate and were in bright, bold, Technicolor.

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Main cast posters in the main hallway of Truman High, 1996

Awhile ago, on Facebook, we Volpeites from the late 90s started to scan in hundreds of pictures. It was–honestly–a freaking joy. While on a visit home, I raided every photo album I had and scanned in my own. We got in touch with people we hadn’t talked to in over a decade. Some just to say hello and how are you, others to start newer friendships.  I don’t think any of us didn’t like our time in Volpe’s drama program. It seemed to make high school a better place. How often can someone say that?

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