Sarah McKinley Austin Touring with National Cast of “Once”
Sugar Land 8-Year-Old Has Flair For Music And Drama
By Judy Latta
One of Sugar Land’s local celebrities is going national. Sarah McKinley Austin, an adorable 8-year-old with a sweet smile, cute dimples and dazzling blue eyes, landed a cast role with the national tour of Once, a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Set in Dublin, Ireland, this romantic drama tells the story of a Czech immigrant, known as Girl, who is drawn to an Irish street musician, Guy, who is down on his luck, dejected and on the verge of abandoning his musical career. Sarah plays Girl’s daughter, Ivanka.
A Star in the Making
According to those who know her, Sarah has always had a flair for music and drama. Her mother, Sue, a cellist and music teacher, says, “When she was about three years old, she would watch one of her favorite shows, The Backyardigans, and sing ‘I Love Being a Princess’ perfectly in tune.” Her father, Mark, a trumpet player and music teacher, says, “When Sarah was a baby, she was always singing. One funny thing she did as a baby was to hum as she ate her food, especially if it tasted good to her. Even now, if she is eating something she really loves, she will hum.”
As Sarah grew, her talent flourished. In her first foray into performance, Sarah sang “A Whole New World” from Aladdin at a recital. Sue remembers, “Afterward, as the audience clapped, someone from behind tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘You have a prodigy on your hands.’ ” The following spring, Sarah auditioned for a part in The Wizard of Oz at Inspiration Stage in Sugar Land. To the surprise of Sarah and her parents, she got the role of Dorothy.
After that, Sarah was hooked. She began studying voice, acting, dance, piano and violin, and she regularly participated in community theater. She performed several roles with Inspiration Stage, and portrayed Young Cosette in Fort Bend Theater’s production of Les Misérables at the Stafford Centre. “I like entertaining people in the audience and pretending to be someone else,” she says. “I enjoy singing because it makes me feel powerful.” Her most cherished part to date is one coveted by almost every little girl. “My favorite role was Elsa in Frozen because she gets to sing ‘Let it Go.’ ”
Moving to the Next Level
Following several acclaimed performances, Sarah decided that she wanted to take her craft to the next level. Last September, she, Sue and Sue’s sister, Emily, traveled to New York City to meet with Nancy Carson, a talent agent. Nancy recommended that Sarah audition for the role of Ivanka in Once, which was already on tour. There is only one child in the show, with no under-study, so the odds of Sarah landing the part were slim, but the threesome took a leap of faith and returned to New York City in late November for the audition.
A week later, Sarah was at school at Campbell Elementary rehearsing for the third-grade holiday program. Sue, the music teacher at Campbell, received a phone call from Nancy alerting her that Sarah had gotten the part. She says, “I grabbed Sarah from the music room and said, ‘you have a special phone call.’ ” Sarah screamed with delight when she heard the news. Sue went on stage and announced to the third-graders that Sarah had gotten the role, and everyone cheered, including her surprised twin brother, David.
Life on Tour
In December, Sarah joined the cast of Once, chaperoned by her aunt Emily, and performed her first show in Dallas.
“I like seeing the people’s reactions when they watch me on stage,” she says. “They laugh when I do the fist bump with Stuart, who plays Guy in the show.” In this, Sarah’s first scene on stage, she meets Guy for the first time. Her first gesture to him is to hold out her fist, to which he responds with a friendly fist bump.
Mark notes, “It is an incredible experience knowing my daughter has up to 10,000 people a week see her perform. As a father sitting in the audience, it makes me very proud that she is my daughter.”
A traveling theater lifestyle can be very exciting for an 8-year-old, but also quite strenuous. The cast typically performs eight shows per week, Tuesdays through Sundays. Sarah has a certified teacher assigned to oversee her academics, and she does her schoolwork in her dressing room during rehearsals and shows. She also takes voice lessons from Erica Spyres, one of the talented cast members in the show.
Despite her hectic schedule, she does have some down time. Mondays, if they do not have to travel, are known as “Golden Days,” when the cast and crew are free to relax or go sightseeing. Sarah says about being on tour, “It’s fun because I like seeing the different people and sights in each city. I also like getting to eat out all the time. Recently, in New Orleans, I tried new foods like beignets and jambalaya.”
Being on the road makes Sarah really appreciate her time at home. When she is back in Sugar Land, she enjoys spending time with friends, shopping, going to movies, attending Girl Scout meetings and playing games. “When I’m not performing, I like to play the game Farkle that I got for Christmas. I love to draw and paint. I look up videos that teach me how to draw on YouTube and it helps me improve my art skills.”
She also enjoys spending time with David. In particular, the twins enjoy playing Wii Mario Cart and Super Mario together. David is also a performer of sorts, but his stage is a baseball field or a gym. He is a baseball pitcher and a first baseman, as well as a basketball player. Sarah and David are supportive of one another, and when possible, Sarah attends David’s games and David attends Sarah’s performances. David proudly declares, “It’s amazing to see Sarah performing on stage. It’s awesome and really fun.”
“It’s been a big adjustment for the family to be away from Sarah for extended periods of time,” Sue says, “but it also makes us value our time together more deeply. We enjoy making memories when we visit Sarah in various cities.”
As for what lies ahead, Sarah plans to continue touring with the show for at least the remainder of the year. “Since children physically outgrow their roles quickly,” Sue explains, “she continues taking auditions and hopes to find more opportunities to perform in the future.” Sarah dreams of one day playing the role of Matilda on Broadway, and in the long term, she says, “I want to be an actress, singer and violinist like some of the talented performers in Once.” Mark adds, “I see her current role as a bridge to bigger opportunities. She has so much to offer the world. Most of all, I want what is best for Sarah. As long as she loves what she is doing, her family is behind her 100 percent. We will do all we can to pave the way for her success.”