Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pa., is not the place one would expect to find a nationally acclaimed theater troupe. But the drama program is credited by so many students with changing their lives.
“I’m not a shy person anymore … and theater definitely, definitely did that for me,” Sharron Harran, a junior at the school, told ABC News.
Levittown is a blue-collar city that fell into disrepair after the coal industry began its decline. But the lackluster town is home to a high school theater program that Music Theater International works with to adapt major hit productions so that they are appropriate for high school stages across the country.
The success of the program was bolstered under the leadership of renowned director Lou Volpe, who spent four decades turning theater into an extracurricular activity for even the unlikeliest of high school students – such as Tim Hild, a varsity soccer player who now balances his time on the field with time on the stage.
“Without being judged about it, you can be one person one day and the next person the next day,” Hild said about acting.
Volpe retired in June and left his former student, Tracy Krause, in charge of the drama program.
“Lou is not just a former teacher and a co-worker. He’s my family. He embodies everything that a teacher would want to be,” Krause said.
Krause graduated from the high school in 1993 and was part of Volpe’s first theater troupe to have made it to the National Theater Fest.
“He’s one of the reasons that I became a teacher,” Krause said of her predecessor.
Now, Volpe’s legacy is left in her hands. In trying to maintain the sense of fearlessness with which Volpe ran his program, she has chosen “Catch Me if You Can,” as her first musical.
The unique productions have attracted students like Hild, Kraus said.
“Tim is not your typical theater student. … There’s just something about him,” Krause said. “He’s not afraid and that’s just a characteristic, whether it’s on the soccer field or in the classroom, that you want. And he encompasses that regardless of the stereotypes of theater.”
With earrings and a goatee, Hild looks every bit the soccer player he is. He admitted he is not the stereotypical theater geek but said he loves drama.
Asked why he even joined, Hild shrugged.
“I heard from a couple of people that it was fun,” he said.
But the program’s effect on Hild was clearly visible. He takes his acting seriously.
“It just has to come from within you,” Hild said. “When you’re being other people, you have to bring all that you have to be that person.”
Hild, the son of a landscaper, had no interest in theater before attending Harry S. Truman High School. His transformation into an actor is one of the many little miracles Volpe’s program made possible.
Krause hopes to follow in Volpe’s footsteps.
“He’s the reason I’m here,’ Krause said. “The teachers here brag, ‘I work at Truman. Have you seen one of our shows?’ It’s a great thing and everyone takes pride in it.”
“Drama High,” by Michael Sokolove, hits shelves Thursday and tells the story of Volpe and the theater program at Harry S. Truman High School. The book chronicles the program’s unexpected success and the uplifting story of Volpe’s efforts to turn the drama program into an outlet for teens in the struggling town.