Jerry Girton has been a 22-year veteran director of the Riverland theatre department. -- Eric Johnson/

Archived Story

Profile preview: Jerry Girton

Published 8:20am Tuesday, February 22, 2011

See stories like this and more in the 2011 Profile edition, set to be released Sunday, Feb. 27.

Jerry Girton heard the first faint whispers of his calling when he was in middle school.

Girton — who is currently the 22-year veteran director of the Riverland theater department — used to help his older brother and sister practice lines as the three walked down their long driveway to the bus stop.

It wasn’t until tenth-grade, though, that Girton auditioned for his first play.

“I don’t know why, but it kind of felt right,” he said. “I did go out for some sports but I wasn’t good at them.”

When Girton began working at Riverland in 1989 as the director of theater, he never thought he’d stick around for 22 years.

“You kind of get ingrained in it,” he said. “I was doing everything I wanted to do, but with a lot more autonomy in my teaching (than in a university).”

Girton has taught a wide variety of theater classes over the years, from beginner’s acting classes to advanced directing to speech for performance.

While he certainly wants his students to succeed, another of Girton’s wishes is for students to develop a sense of camaraderie with their peers. Known for being a compassionate and understanding professor, Girton said he hopes his students come out of the theater program with a “good, solid feeling of friends.” 

As he has seen both in his own life and in his students’ lives, theater brings people together not only because it is a mutual interest among all involved, but because everyone must spend so much time together in classes and rehearsals.

“You meet the best people when you’re in theater,” Girton said. “And they’ve got your back. They accept people.”

Not only does Girton strive to teach his students the intricacies of theater, but he uses classes and rehearsals as a tool to teach a solid work ethic and dedication to a group project.

“If you are responsible and dedicated and a team player, think of how many jobs that covers in the real world,” he said. “There are a lot of things you gain from being in theater — work ethic, et cetera.”

Girton also stresses the meaning of success. Since some students are naturally better at acting or directing than others, it’s important that everyone knows success doesn’t necessarily mean making it to Hollywood or Broadway.

“You don’t have to be a professional actor to be successful,” Girton said. “You don’t have to be a Tom Cruise, Matt Damon or Meryl Streep.”

That’s not to say Girton hasn’t had his share of students who have made it big. Some have even gone on to appear on the Disney Channel and “America’s Got Talent.”

In 22 years at Riverland, plus 14 other years teaching high school, Girton has seen hundreds of students come and go. He said he tries to keep in touch with students after they graduate and begin their careers or go on to a 4-year university.

Recently, social networking websites have helped him keep in touch with students from classrooms past.

“Thank god for Facebook,” he said. “I know it’s used in the wrong way by a lot of people, but it’s nice to keep in contact.”

However, there will always be students who disappear after leaving and don’t resurface for quite some time.

“You miss them,” he said. “But there are new ones that come along that fill the void.”

And, of course, there are always alumni shows that give former students the opportunity to come back and appear on the Frank W. Bridges stage again, sometimes with current students.

“The alumni shows have a special place,” Girton said.

Having directed countless plays in the last two decades, Girton said he has never directed a play he did not want to do or that wasn’t exciting to him.

He views plays not only as an entertaining learning experience for students and community members, but also as an educational challenge.

“It’s the theater’s responsibility to entertain and educate — not just the students but the audience as well,” he said.

This means occasionally featuring controversial or serious plays or musicals. As an example, Girton used “Take Me Out,” a play the Riverland Theater Department featured in April 2010.

The show, which has an all-male cast and takes place mostly in the locker room of a professional baseball team, explores issues like homophobia, racism and masculinity in sports.

While potentially controversial for some audience members, the show presents topics that warrant some thought.

“If everybody liked every play I did, I wouldn’t be doing my job,” said Girton.

All Girton asks from students when putting together a show, regardless of the content, is for “a sense of energy, hope, enthusiasm, fun and willingness to learn.”

Girton also sets out to possess all of these things both in his directing and in his job as a whole.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have a career that I’m really passionate for,” he said. “I’m really lucky to have a job I love.”

Look for Profiles 2011 in the Sunday, Feb. 27 edition of the Austin Daily Herald.

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