The original book's author also weighs in on the controversy engulfing the NBC drama

By David Canfield
March 13, 2018 at 02:34 PM EDT
Micahel Williamson; NBC
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Michael Sokolove didn’t know his acclaimed 2013 book Drama High, a recounting of his high school experience with legendary theater teacher Lou Volpe, would become a major TV series. But he wasn’t exactly shocked by it, either. “It’s awful to say yes,” he cracks when asked if he expected the development. “I knew it would be of interest … [But] what’s really unusual is for it to ever get anywhere. I never thought it would get to the finish line because that almost never happens.”

The book was optioned right out of the gate by Sony, a contract which the studio even renewed, but an adaptation never got anywhere after two years. Interest remained high, though, and it was the dogged pursuit of the rights by producer Jeffrey Seller (Hamilton) which brought Sokolove’s story to the screen. Seller worked with Sokolove on bringing the project to NBC, where Jason Katims — who knows a thing or two about inspirational high school stories — signed on as writer and co-developer. Next thing you know, Rise was born.

Drama High takes place in Levittown, Pennsylvania, a former steel town racked by structural economic changes, and traces Volpe’s remarkable efforts as a public high school theater director to transform his students’ lives. Sokolove was one such student, turning his experience into a beloved book, but as he reminds us, there are thousands like him who were encouraged to be creative and passionate in a place where they felt surrounded by despair and decay.

Sokolove admits it’ll be strange to see part of his life story now play out before millions of viewers on a weekly basis. But he also believes the book’s message provides a particularly vital commentary in today’s cultural climate. “I was writing this at a time when it was just becoming clear to people that some of these towns were really emptying out — not of people, but of opportunity,” he explains, referencing his nuanced portrait of the kind of community that now tends to be stereotyped. “And it was before Donald Trump.” The book also makes a powerful argument for public arts education — and given the funding cuts supported by the current administration, it’s one Sokolove says is worth hearing. “[Nobody] who went to school was inspired by trying to get a standardized test score,” he explains. “What Lou shows so clearly is that education is still about passion and inspiration.”

Sokolove’s book has also inadvertently become part of some controversy, with critics accusing Rise of straight-washing; Volpe is a gay man who came out late in life, as Drama High explores, but Rise — which takes other liberties with the story as well — envisions the character as a straight married man, played by Josh Radnor. (Katims explained that decision here.)  “There’s not a whole lot written about gay men of Lou’s generation — who had a family and came out of the closet,” Sokolove says. “When Lou started as a teacher, there were no out gay teachers in my school district and few anywhere.”

But the author also stresses that the series is distinct from the book, and that it’s Katims’ story to tell. “The show honors the book in a way that makes me happy,” he says when asked about the controversy. “[Katims] has the right to write characters as he wants to write them, and that’s what he did. If people have objections to that, I think they should first watch the show. I don’t think it’s okay to have strong opinions about a piece of art without having viewed it or read it.” Further, Sokolove believes, Katims’ interpretation is “rousing” in its own way, featuring a collection of diverse and unique characters.

Volpe has gone on a journey from public school educator to national inspirational symbol, leading Sokolove to reflect on the man he’s long idolized. The author recalls writing Drama High and struggling with the idea that Volpe perhaps wasn’t all that he made him out to be. But, he says, revisiting his youth and telling his story confirmed for Sokolove that he had it right — and that Volpe’s heroic portrait in Rise is not only justified but gratifying to see. “Any fear I had that he wasn’t all ‘that,’ I went back and realized, ‘No, I’ve got the right guy,’” he gushes. “He is all that. … He was worthy of this treatment.”

Rise premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

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