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'Rise' is a TV series that takes teenagers seriously

On the set of
On the set of "Rise": (L-R) director/producer Rosemary Rodriguez, actors Eisa Davis and Damon J. Gillespie, and executive producer Jason Katims.
Virginia Sherwood / NBC
On the set of
A scene from NBC's "Rise."
Virginia Sherwood / NBC
On the set of
Rosie Perez and Josh Radnor star in the NBC series "Rise."
Virginia Sherwood / NBC
On the set of
Director/producer Rosemary Rodriguez and executive producer Jason Katims on the set of "Rise."
Virginia Sherwood / NBC
On the set of
Auli'i Cravalho (L) and Shirley Rumierk in the NBC series, "Rise."
Virginia Sherwood/NBC

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When he was working on the NBC show, "Friday Night Lights," Jason Katims says he spent a lot of time explaining to people that they didn't have to love football to enjoy the show. Similarly, he says you don't have to be a musical theater geek to get something out of his new series, "Rise."

"I think the musical theater in the show is beautiful and uplifting, but you don't have to be a fan of that to enjoy the show," Katims says. "It really is ultimately a show about community, about relationships, about parenting, about marriage and all of those things."

The NBC series — created and executive produced by Katims — is loosely based on Michael Sokolove's nonfiction book, "Drama High." The book focuses on the career of Lou Volpe, a teacher who led the drama department at Harry S. Truman High in Levittown, Pennsylvania for more than 40 years. 

"Rise" centers on the character of Lou Mazzucchelli (played Josh Radner), an English teacher who takes it upon himself to transform his school's drama program:

An appeal to the school principal leaves Mazzucchelli as the new head of the drama department and from there he quickly exchanges a predictable production of "Grease" for "Spring Awakening." The play proves to be a controversial choice, with students addressing child abuse, abortion and homosexuality onstage. The series itself spends a fair amount of time examining the off-stage personal lives and struggles of the students and families if the fictional town of Stanton, Pennsylvania. 

The Frame host John Horn spoke with Jason Katims about "Rise."

Interview Highlights:

On being inspired by the real-life story of Lou Volpe:

Lou Volpe ran this program for 44 years, turned it from an overlooked and unfunded program into this nationally-recognized high school theater program. It was amazing what he did. What was moving to me was that this program was so important to [the students], so impactful to them — it was about their self-esteem. It was about having a place where they felt they could be free, they could learn about themselves. They could be trusted and have a bigger vision for their lives than they had coming into it.

On the connection between "Friday Night Lights" and "Rise":

What we did in "Friday Night Lights" that I thought was so effective was you felt like you were dropped down into this town. You felt like you were living with these people, not that you were looking at them from a distance. I really wanted to capture some of that in "Rise." So the way that we write it, the way that we shoot it, we're really trying to make it feel as authentic and real as possible.

On making a show about the lives of teenagers at a time when teenagers are leading a national conversation about gun violence in schools:

I've been incredibly inspired, like many people, watching those kids raise their voices and speak up and change the conversation in our country in a way that nobody else has been able to do. And it's hard to talk about because I don't want to say that the kids in ["Rise"] who are trying to do a production of a play and not get stopped by the administration is on the same level. But I do feel like it is about raising voices, it is about witnessing these young people come into their own in this way that is really — on a much more personal level — really powerful. A lot of the Parkland students who have raised their voices are in the drama program. Several of them are actually in a production of "Spring Awakening" in rehearsals right now, so I definitely do see some connective tissue there.

On what the show has to say about the value of arts education:

There's this age-old assumption that the arts, in education, are secondary in importance. In researching this show I've gone into high schools and I've seen the effects of what's happening in, not only drama programs, but music and arts of all kinds. And it's not secondary, it's as important. It's a way for people to express themselves, to figure out who they are. So many of them describe it as a second family, so it is something incredibly important. 

"Rise" airs Tuesday nights on NBC.

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