Austin's Journey to Houston - Week 1

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Above: Diana Gundacker (left), GSP's Manager of Tour and Academy Programs, and the Houston cast of Austin the Unstoppable was welcomed by D'Andrea (center), a selfless school nurse who provided the George Street Playhouse team a delicious meal and good ol' southern hospitality.


NOTE: Carol Foose, a 2016-17 GSP Educational Touring Theatre cast member, has returned this season to join the cast of Austin the Unstoppable, which is currently touring Houston schools and organizations through a grant provided by Novo Nordisk in conjunction with its Changing Cities Diabetes program. During the next few weeks, we will be sharing Carol's thoughts from Houston as she chronicles her experiences on the tour. Below is the first installment.

George Street Playhouse is one of my favorite theaters to work for because both the creative and administrative staffs have a deep, unified understanding of and dedication to their responsibility as artists. The mission of the playhouse states that they look to “positively shape and be shaped by the diverse character of our community.”  I mean, any artist would love to work with GSP simply because of the unbeatable quality of their work, but when fueled with such social relevance, it becomes not only entertaining, but also intellectually and emotionally challenging. I could go on for days about my respect for this theater.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic to receive a phone call on August 8 from Jim Jack, GSP's Director of Education and Outreach, with an invitation to return to George Street as a cast member on the team that would bring Austin the Unstoppable down to Houston, TX.  The opportunity sounded incredible and I immediately began to prepare for the experience, anxious for rehearsals beginning on September 11.  On a nightly basis, I would re-visit the script, becoming only more and more excited for the adventure ahead.  

Come mid-August, I started hearing about the dreaded Hurricane Harvey. With my morning coffee, I would watch the news, and as days passed, the threat of the storm increased. When Harvey finally hit Houston, my heart broke. I never expected the damage to be as devastating as it was. So many people were suffering a loss so great that my own stomach would sink with sympathy. I immediately thought about my castmates.  Though I didn’t yet even know their names, I knew that my future castmates (Mason Butler and Danté Anderson) lived in Houston. I reached out to Jim Jack to see if the boys were OK and to see if there was anything I could do to help.  Upon reassuring me that Mason and Danté were safe, with full transparency, Jim Jack told me that the damage caused by the storm might affect the plans to tour the show in Houston.  Though heartbroken at the possibility that the show might not go on, I reminded myself that others were suffering deeper pain and greater loss.

On September 6, I received another phone call from Jim Jack. Great news!  The tour would resume as scheduled. In just five short days, I would be walking into my first rehearsal in New Brunswick, N.J.  My heart pounded in anticipation. I knew now, however, that because of the storm, my responsibility as an artist was greater than ever before. I had to prepare not only to educate and entertain, but also to spread joy and hope to a community that might need it most.

The Austin the Unstoppable cast rehearsed for two weeks before flying down to Houston. Our rehearsals were filled with joy, and it felt like no time at all before we were boarding a southbound flight.

Sunny skies welcomed us to Houston. It was clear that Hurricane Harvey left quite a mark, but Houston is Strong, and the people of the city will not let that be forgotten. Though a month after Harvey hit, some streets are still lined with soaked furniture of gutted homes and some families are still displaced. The heartbreak, however, is on the mend.  The Houston community has united in a beautiful effort to rebuild their city. I am constantly inspired by the selfless help I witness on a daily basis, and I look forward to helping in any way I can.

More can be learned about Austin’s journey to Houston here.

WEEK 1

Southern Hospitality is a beautiful thing! I have been in Houston for a short five days, and it already feels like home.

The ladies of the Unstoppable team — Carol Foose (Kayla), Erica Leigh (Stage Manager) and Katie Lugo (Deena) — are all settled into their temporary house in Houston.  The gentlemen — Danté Anderson (Austin) and Mason Butler (Dylan/Dr. Klein/Devil Dog/X-box Controller/Mr. Pizza) — have returned from rehearsals in New Jersey to a happy homecoming in their home city.  

I have been inspired by Austin’s story and have been trying to lead a healthier lifestyle myself.  Since arriving in Houston, I have been exploring the neighborhood on morning runs, waking up with fresh air.  We are very fortunate to live in a home that suffered little damage from the hurricane.  Some of our neighbors were not so lucky, though they still greet me in the mornings with a hopeful smile as they look forward to rebuilding their home and their city.

We opened our touring production on Thursday, September 28, at Nathaniel Q. Henderson Elementary School.  The audience’s enthusiasm was contagious, and I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since.  A first-grade student asked me to stay and work at the school as her teacher.  The offer was incredibly tempting because of the charm and intellect of these students.

On Friday, we ventured to Isaac’s Elementary School for show No. 2.  We were greeted with welcoming smiles and a laminated poster that each student had signed.  The students began to skip and whisper when they saw us in the hallway, itching to see the show they had already heard so much about.  Once again, their excitement rubbed off on us, giving us more than enough energy and joy to give one of our best performances to date.  At Isaac’s Elementary, we were introduced to D’Andrea, a school nurse with a heart that overflows with compassion.  After our show, she had a delicious (and, of course, nutritious) meal waiting for us.  I was very touched by her generosity and hospitality.

I used the weekend to explore Houston with my castmates.  We went to Discovery Green Park, ate our fill of barbeque and Tex-Mex, and slept soundly for our bodies to be well enough rested to tackle our impending joy-filled six-show week.

Our first audience in Houston!

Our first audience in Houston!

Carol Foose, Erica Leigh, and Katie Lugo soak in the Houston sun at Discovery Green Park

Carol Foose, Erica Leigh and Katie Lugo soak in the Houston sun at Discovery Green Park

Cooling off at Discovery Green Park

Cooling off at Discovery Green Park

Diana Gundacker, Katie Lugo, Erica Leigh, and Carol Foose bask in the Texas sun.  Though October, it definitely still feels like summer!

Diana Gundacker, Katie Lugo, Erica Leigh, and Carol Foose bask in the Texas sun. Though October, it definitely still feels like summer!

Harvey definitely left a mark on Texas, but Houston is Strong, and the people here will not let you forget it. We hope to inspire the students of Houston with our show. We already know we will be inspired by the strength of community here in Houston!

Harvey definitely left a mark on Texas, but Houston is Strong, and the people here will not let you forget it. We hope to inspire the students of Houston with our show. We already know we will be inspired by the strength of community here in Houston!