Rise, a new NBC drama out March 13, is what happens if you put Glee, Friday Night Lights, and a dash of a true story into a blender and then try to create a network TV show. Given the ingredients, the results are what you’d expect: An earnest tear-jerker about following your dreams, the constraints of being born in a specific place, and the difficulty of staying true to yourself.
In the show, an English teacher named Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radner) decides to radically remake the drama program of the blue-collar Pennsylvania town’s high school in which he works and lives. Lou decides to put on Spring Awakening, and break the Grease streak, despite uproar from the community. A racy show about teenage sexuality set in 19th century Germany! He casts Spring Awakening with kids from a variety of cliques (a football star and aspiring rapper acts alongside the football coach’s daughter).
But the most compelling aspect of Rise, the part that you should keep in mind while watching, is that it’s loosely based on a true story. The story was inspired by a 2013 book called Drama High by Michael Sokolove, which he wrote after spending two years at his old high school in Levittown, Pennsylvania. The book’s central figure — its protagonist, if a nonfiction book could have one — is Lou Volpe, the dynamic, visionary teacher who headed the school’s drama program for over 40 years.
Volpe’s career was extraordinary for a number of reasons. For one, Volpe had no prior experience in theater when he became head of the school’s drama department (the prior head had just left Harry S. Truman high, and the principal needed a replacement). He loved theater, but he had never actually participated in any aspect of a production. For his first show, the 21-year-old Volpe decided to put on an avant-garde production of Sophocles’ Antigone, and cast his students in green trash bags and aluminum foil. After that first production, Volpe committed himself to filling in his knowledge gap, taking classes in nearby colleges and summer theater programs.
Where other schools stuck to classics like Bye Bye Birdie, Volpe and his students put on dark, six-person dramas, like Good Boys and True, and extravagantly complicated musicals like Les Mis. In 2007, Truman High became the first school to put on a high-school production of Rent – one out of every five students at Truman auditioned for it. In 2011, Volpe performed the same feat by making Harry S. Truman the first high school to mount a production of Spring Awakening.
As with Rise, Volpe cast an array of students in his plays. In Volpe’s production of Good Boys and True, the three male parts were all filled by athletes (one was a football player who quit the team to make time for drama). In Rise, Lou is determined to cast a star football player in Spring Awakening, despite protests from the coach. Finally, the show takes place in a blue-collar town in Pennsylvania, just like where Volpe taught.
Where Rise deviates from the source material is in the character of Lou himself (as well as the show’s fictional cast of characters). In the show, Lou Mazzuchelli is married, has three children, and struggles to balance his work demands with his family. Lou Volpe, on the other hand, is gay. He was married, and remained closeted for much of his life. In Drama High, Sokolove writes extensively about Volpe’s experiences with his sexuality.
When he was told about Rise, Volpe initially assumed the character Lou would be gay, too. "About two years ago, when I heard that Drama High was going to be a TV series on NBC, I initially thought the series was going to be an adaptation of the book, so I just assumed the character would mirror me," Volpe told The Advocate.
The decision to change the character’s sexuality was met with backlash. In the aftermath, the show’s creator, Jason Katims, clarified that the show wasn’t quite based on Volpe, but rather, inspired by him. “I deeply understand the frustration here, and the wish to see more LGBTQ-identifying characters at the center of broadcast television shows. However, I was never setting out to do an adaptation of Lou Volpe’s story — but instead create a large ensemble drama that was not a retelling of the original story, but instead served as a jumping off point and an inspiration,” he wrote in an email to The Advocate.
Katims actually visited Volpe in his home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to explain the distinction. After that, Volpe told The Advocate that he was comfortable with the character’s portrayal. "For me, 'straight-washing' the character was never an issue, because he is not based on me. As an artist, I respect their vision for the show," Volpe told The Advocate. He said that while he and Lou Mazzuchelli have shared values, they are “fundamentally different” people.