By Dean Galiffa
NBC10 and the Educational Theatre Foundation held an advanced screening of the pilot for the new television drama “Rise” at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center on March 11.
Tickets for the event, hosted by NBC10 meteorologist Brittney Shipp, were free to reserve on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“‘Rise’ reflects a modern American high school with students of diverse backgrounds and life experiences,” said Shipp before the screening. “The story is as much about a small town in Pennsylvania as it is about musical theater. ‘Rise’ is about family, friendship, relationships, and growing up.”
The show is based on a true story, featuring the lives of teachers and students at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pa. Current students and staff were invited to the event.
“This show is about finding inspiration in unexpected places when dedicated teacher Lou Mazzuchelli sheds his self-doubt and takes over the school’s lackluster theater department,” Shipp said before the screening began. “He galvanizes not only the faculty but also students in the entire working-class town.”
Georjenna Gatto, an alumnus of Truman, explained that “Rise” is based on “Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater,” a book by Michael Sokolove, New York Times Magazine writer and Truman alumnus.
Published in 2013, “Drama High” tells the true story of the students and teachers at Truman.
At the time, the students were rehearsing for the first high school-edited production of “Spring Awakening,” under the direction of Lou Volpe. In Gatto’s words, Volpe revolutionized the theater program at Truman.
“I was playing Wendla,” said Gatto, referring to her lead role in the production. “Mike Sokolove came back and followed us around for months, interviewing us and watching us rehearse.”
Students and staff from Mastery Charter School at Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, Pa. were also invited to the screening.
“These two schools were one of 50 schools chosen by NBC and the Educational Theatre Foundation that’s part of R.I.S.E. America,” Shipp said. “They are going to receive a $10 thousand grant that will enable them to enhance their theater program.”
According to the Educational Theatre Foundation website, 50 high schools were chosen out of 1,000 applicants to receive NBC’s “R.I.S.E. America” grants.
The acronym “R.I.S.E.” stands for “Recognizing and Inspiring Student Expression.” The grants enable theater programs to cover the cost of critical needs, such as production expenses and technical equipment.
Jared Moskowitz and Natalie Busillo, teachers at Shoemaker, said they applied for the grant and submitted a video.
“I took [the video] on my iPhone,” Busillo said. “It was our school choir singing ‘21 Guns’ [by Green Day], and I interviewed some students. I literally looked up YouTube videos on how to edit and taught myself how to use iMovie.”
Moskowitz said they had tried performing productions at Shoemaker in the past, but due to unfortunate circumstances, were unable to.
“We were going to do a production of ‘A Raisin In The Sun,’ and we completely sold out,” he said. “Two weeks before opening night, a pipe burst in the school, and the entire theater flooded. All of the equipment was ruined and the stage buckled in. The floodgates literally opened.”
Busillo said that Shoemaker has one of the stronger theater programs out of all campuses due to their more developed space for musicals. The grant money will go toward updating theater equipment.
After the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center screening, Shipp held a Q-and-A with executive producer Jason Katims and “Rise” star Damon J. Gillespie.
Shipp asked Katims how he came up with the idea for the show and what compelled him to write it.
“I became aware of [“Drama High”] from Jeffrey Seller and Bob Greenblatt,” said Katims, referring to the NBC producers. “Even before opening the book, I knew it was a story I wanted to tell. Lou dedicated his life to being an educator, inspiring so many students’ lives and changing the community.”
Katims added that trying to capture the spirit and essence that many high school theater programs have is exciting for him.
He also paid tribute to teachers at Truman, including Volpe.
“I’ve spent the last year in Lou’s world,” Katims said. “Writing about this, I’m inspired by all of the teachers who do the same thing.”
Katims said that when Volpe read the script, he focused on the writing rather than the material of the show.
“It was incredible,” Katims said. “He saw me as a writer, and I realized that I was experiencing what it was like to be one of Lou’s students in that theater program for 44 years.”
NBC aired the pilot on March 13 and new episodes will continue to air every Tuesday.
Contact Dean Galiffa at firstname.lastname@example.org