By S. Barot
For The Star
Her big blue eyes, shimmering purple jacket, and vibrant personality foretell the makings of an influential Broadway star. She plays the piano, sings, dances and is an exceptional performer. She can command the attention of an entire room when she enters – and she’s only eight.
Local third grader Sarah McKinley Austin, is currently on tour with Broadway’s ONCE. She plays Ivanka – the daughter of one of the main protagonists. ONCE is the tale of a Dublin street musician who is about to give up on his dream of music until her meets a young woman (with a child named Ivanka, played by Sarah). She takes an interest in him and his songs and the play highlights their tale.
The play closed on Broadway in New York City earlier this year and since then, Sarah has been on tour around the nation.
“I like being on tour,” Sarah said. “I’ve been exploring other places that I never actually knew existed in the world. I like it a ton because I can see different sites like stuff that other people don’t get to see everyday.”
Like many performer’s, Sarah’s foray into the performing arts began at a very young age. She hummed tunes while eating delicious meals, sang around the house and eventually, singing became very natural. As the daughter of two musicians, it wasn’t very long before her parents realized her talent and potential.
Sarah’s mother, Sue Austin, enrolled Sarah in a special Disney-inspired summer camp where children rehearsed six to eight and performed a concert at the end. That was Sarah’s first time performing in front of such a large audience. Sue then began to research additional opportunities for Sarah to showcase her talent.
Austin heard about a company in Sugar Land called Inspiration State. They engage aspiring performers in productions. One such production was a weekend class for the Wizard of Oz. Sarah was given the lead part – Dorothy. From there, Sarah tried out for more theater camps and even played young Cosette at the Stafford Centre.
“We started to really think that she has talent and wanted to do more shows locally but there wasn’t anything like that available,” Austin said. “So we looked into ideas of going to NYC and wondering if she was at that level. We heard about an open call in New York for Matilda that was in her age range, so we decided to go.”
New York-based agent Nancy Carson with Carson-Adler Agency, represented Sarah for the Matilda audition. Unfortunately, Sarah was not called back but two months later, Carson told them about ONCE. Sarah auditioned, got the part, and has been on the ONCE track ever since.
“There is an entertainer inside of me,” Sarah said. “I love doing the things I do because my parents encourage me and I feel really good about it. And my brother is really nice. He encourages me too.”
While Sarah’s Aunt Emily accompanies her on the road, Austin and her husband are at home working and taking care of their son. But she makes it clear that being away from her child for weeks on end is a difficult and strenuous task.
“Parents really have to search their heart to see if this is something their family can do and wants to do and whether their child fully understands the commitment involved – especially during tour,” Austin said. “Sarah has been really happy and successful so we are happy for her but it’s not a typical childhood lifestyle and as a family, it’s hard to be apart. You have to dig deep and make sure that this is something your child really wants.”
Austin also spoke about the toll that this sort of activity can take on a child.
“The older these performers get, the more competitive it gets,” Austin said. “There’s no telling whether there will be another role. This could be the opportunity she has and if that’s the case, I’m fine with that because it will be a good memory for the rest of her life. I don’t want her self-worth and value to be placed on whether or not she gets a part.”
The performers will still be touring and will also be performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for six weeks. They are also expected to have shows in Chicago.
For Sarah, this is not the end. She wants to continue this amazing and unique journey through middle and high school.
“I would love to join theater groups and the choir in school because I’ll be with other people my age,” Sarah said.
Her advice to kids her age who are looking to become performers is simple: “Believe in yourself, that you can do it.”