Whitehurst Casts a New Theater Director


The curtains draw open on a new era beginning in Whitehurst theater as
legendary teacher, Mr. Fritton, has moved exclusively to the middle school, leaving room for Mr. Austin to take his role.

  Mr. Daniel Austin has always loved theater. In high school, while he attended Bartram Trail, he fought to have a theater program. “Our drama teacher had a stroke, and they were ready to cut it entirely. They actually took the drama room and turned it into a second cafeteria. So, we lost our space, we lost our teacher, but that was something I was not willing to give up.”

  He and a few friends decided to take their case to the administration and petitioned to keep the program alive. The administration determined that if they could find a sponsor, they would be allowed to continue the program after school. Fortunately, for Mr. Austin and his friends, there was a teacher willing to switch from English to Drama. While the program never truly took off while Mr. Austin was there, the drama program at Bartram Trail is very strong today. “I’m really proud of the fact that we didn’t just let the program die there, that we really fought for it and said that this is something that we really want to have at the school.”

  After high school, Mr. Austin went to the University of Florida and participated in the BFA program for
theater performance, mainly studying acting. However, Austin said making the decision to study acting was difficult. Unsure whether to go into marketing and communication or theater, it was a question of stability. “It’s probably a struggle that a lot of Bolles students can identify with, which is, when you go into college, being an artist is a scary choice.”

  While at first his major concern was stability with his job, he realized that no job could guarantee that stability. Austin began as a double major in marketing and theater, however, when he got into the BFA program, his love of theater won out.

  After college, Mr. Austin moved to New York, spending most of his time in performance, although he did have a few teaching opportunities. However, he began to want stability, and had heard that there was a growing art scene in North Florida. “I liked the idea of getting in on the ground level of something, not just coming into some place that’s already established and has a lot of things going on and you just go up the ladder. It seemed there was a lot of things happening at once in Jacksonville, not just in the theater scene, but in the art scene in general, so I’ve been working pretty much in that since I got here.”

  An early job he had in Jacksonville was working for the Cultural Council. His job was in communications which meant he had the opportunity to work with a variety of different artists across the city. This revealed a major problem in Jacksonville’s art scene. “A lot of people stay in their bubbles, they stay in their neighborhoods, you know. So if there is something cool going on at the beach you might not see it…. There’s a lot of trouble just getting people from one thing to another.”

  In teaching, he worked for the nonprofit organization, the Cathedral Arts Project, located downtown. This
organization looks at schools, in Duval county, and targets those with a nonexistent or a weak arts program. They sent Mr. Austin to work with kids in these schools. At the end of the year, he would put together a showcase, so that they would have the opportunity to perform.

  Most recently, Mr. Austin directed the show, How I Learned to Drive, written by Paula Vogel, at local theater company, the Five and Dime. The show, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Drama, premiered on August 10th, 2018. “A great cast and a great run of the show, but it did remind me how many things you have to do to be a director.”

  Now at Bolles, Austin happily works with lower school students. “I like working with all levels of students in terms of drama, but what’s fun about lower school students is that they’re not worried about looking cool.” Mr. Austin explained that middle schoolers tend to want to look cool for their peers and it “starts to put this kind of wall up.” Sometimes even high schoolers face this challenge. “When you’re working with kids who are sort of past fifth grade you have to do pre-work with them, which is sort of breaking that wall down, so they can feel comfortable being uncomfortable, or be okay looking uncool.”

  However, “kids in lower school still aren’t worried about that. You know when you tell them ‘jump,’ they are like ‘how high.’ You tell them make a funny face, they’re gonna make a funny face. They don’t care, they think it’s fun, they think it’s funny, they’re just willing to go and they’re willing to play.”
  Not only is Mr. Austin teaching skills for the stage, but his drama class has taken on even greater responsibility: educating first graders on basic moral ethics. After observing one of Mr. Austin’s classes, I realized that his games engaged first graders and had deeper lessons within them. One game, “The Cooperation Challenge,” he played was simple, yet its meaning was more complex. The game consisted of Mr. Austin asking the first graders to form groups with certain restrictions. For example, he might ask them to form groups of four. The first graders would have to quickly form these groups successfully. If they failed, they would go to the “observation deck” and discuss what went wrong.

  Sometimes, a few first graders would need to sit out of the groups on the “observation deck” in order for them to succeed. “That teaches personal responsibility for group success,” said Austin. “Cooperating isn’t just about the individual, but the whole.”

That’s a lesson for theater, and a lesson for life.