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Pushing creative boundaries

Retired Harry S. Truman educator Lou Volpe inducted into Bucks County Playhouse Hall of Fame

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

In the spotlight: Retired Harry S. Truman High School theater director Lou Volpe recently joined the ranks of Shirley Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II and Angela Lansbury in the Bucks County Playhouse Hall of Fame. Source: Bucks County Playhouse

Lou Volpe has never been one to accept the status quo. For the Yardley resident, every situation offers a golden opportunity to challenge the norm, to shake things up. During his 44-year tenure as an educator at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, that’s exactly what he did.

Volpe transitioned from an English teacher to arguably one of the most unconventional theater directors in Truman history, choosing to produce revolutionary shows such as Spring Awakening and Les Miserables rather than kitschy musicals like Grease. Volpe’s dedication and out-of-the-box approach inspired the book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town and the Magic of Theater, which was recently adapted into the NBC series Rise.

Under Volpe’s tutelage, countless local teens were able to reach their full potential both on stage and in their personal lives. With such a lasting legacy, which millions of viewers nationwide can get a glimpse of every Tuesday at 9 p.m., it only made sense for Volpe to join the ranks of Shirley Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II and Angela Lansbury in the Bucks County Playhouse Hall of Fame.

A special induction ceremony was held on Saturday, April 14, at the New Hope-based theater, with family, friends and Truman alumni in attendance. To truly honor this man who inspired so many, BCP pulled out all the stops to host a touching yet entertaining afternoon. The festivities began at 4 p.m. with a stunningly beautiful overture performed by pianist Graeme Burgan. Doylestown resident, BCP performer and American Idol star Justin Guarini then took the stage to officially welcome the crowd. Sporting a sleek black suit, Guarini explained how important an educator like Volpe is to a young, aspiring performer.

“For many, a drama teacher is someone’s first taste into this industry,” he said.

Much to the audience’s excitement, Guarini announced April 14 to be “Lou Volpe Bucks County Playhouse Appreciation Day,” an annual celebration of Volpe’s impact on the performing arts community. Guarini then welcomed on stage BCP executive producer Robyn Goodman and producing director Alexander Fraser, who both shared their sentiments on how their own drama teachers positively impacted their careers.

Goodman and Fraser brought the audience’s attention to the Bucks County Playhouse Student Theater Festival, which Volpe helped bring back after the beloved event suffered a lengthy hiatus. Celebrating 50 years, the four-day festival draws 1,000 students from more than 35 schools across the Mid-Atlantic region to showcase their work on the BCP stage. They have the opportunity to participate in workshops and receive expert feedback from a panel of theater professionals, which includes Volpe.

“It helps young people learn and be amazed at theater,” Fraser said. “It’s giving kids a chance to learn extraordinary skills, even if they don’t go into performing arts.”

The audience was then able to witness how Volpe evoked a passion for theater among the Truman student body during a screening of the pilot episode of Rise. Based on the 2013 New York Times Best Seller Drama High written by former student Michael Sokolove, the show follows English teacher Lou Mazzuchelli as he attempts to revamp the school’s failing theater department.

The creative team behind Rise, which includes Broadway producer Jeffrey Seller (Hamilton, Rent, Avenue Q and In the Heights), writer Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) and executive producer Flody Suarez, captured the essence of Volpe and his remarkable career in the television drama, which aired on March 13 on NBC.

Mazzuchelli, Volpe’s fictional counterpart, has his work cut out for him as he’s forced to deal with students and staff hesitant to change. But under no circumstances will he direct what would be the school’s third production of Grease. Mazzuchelli wants to push students’ creative limits with shows like Spring Awakening, which brings up the controversial topics of suicide and sexuality.

Though it takes some time, the students eventually become passionate about what Mazzuchelli is trying to achieve. The star of the football team embraces his inner actor to become one with his character Melchior, and a devout Christian student defies his parents to play Hänschen, whose love interest is another man.

Like anything produced in Hollywood, certain aspects of Volpe’s years at Truman are dramaticized. But at the heart of Rise is an accurate depiction of a small-town teacher with a larger-than-life passion for helping teens discover ambitions they never realized before.

After the screening of Rise, Volpe’s mentee and current Truman theater director Tracey Gatte, along with a number of his former colleagues, paid tribute to him. Truman alumni and Burgan performed “Seasons of Love” from Rent before Volpe was officially inducted into the Hall of Fame.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, attendees were invited to gather at the Ferry Market, 32 S. Main St., to continue the celebration, with a portion of proceeds from sales going to the Bucks County Playhouse’s Education Program.

Visit bcptheater.org for more information on the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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