By Maddie Orton
George Street Playhouse’s Austin the Unstoppable is a musical comedy for young people, but the show begins with a startling statistic from former U.S. Surgeon General, Richard H. Carmona: “We may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”
Director of Education and Outreach at the playhouse, Jim Jack, emphasizes the word “may” when he makes this curtain speech. And, with an eye toward prevention, actors takes the topic from there.
“Austin the Unstoppable is about a family from New Jersey who is struggling with a son who is on the road to becoming obese and a mother who has recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes,” says Jack.
Characters face deciphering nutrition labels, finding ways to incorporate exercise into daily routines and resisting temptation. The show is designed for kids grades 3-8, a period when many start making their own decisions about what to eat.
Jack acknowledges it’s a challenging topic to explain and potentially a sensitive one, too, but he thinks that’s why theater is an ideal medium.
“They follow a journey that a character goes on, and they see themselves in that journey,” says Jack. “And the music has movement and activity and joy attached to it. Theater, as an art form, is just very powerful at communicating important messages.”
That’s what Joan Hollendonner thinks, too. She’s Senior Program Officer for The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey—one of the organizations that commissioned the show, and an ongoing financial supporter.
“Not only is it the kind of vehicle that’s just wonderful for engaging the kids and keeping their attention,” says Hollendonner, “but then you have the ability to reach large, large numbers of children.”
Since its premiere, Austin the Unstoppable has toured over 160 schools reaching nearly 40,000 kids throughout New Jersey. Jack says he hopes to bring the show to communities nationwide, but this is a free performance right in the theater’s hometown of New Brunswick — complete with active theater games and a healthy lunch.
Tamara Canady previously worked for the American Diabetes Association and has a parent with the disease. She says she brought her kids in an ongoing effort to teach them at an early age how to live and eat healthily.
“The show focused on exercising, things like reducing screen time, as well as healthy eating,” says Canady. “So all those components together are key.”
If 7-year-old Bryson Agnew’s love for tomatoes is any indication, her efforts seem to be fruitful.
“Yeah [it is important to eat healthy food] because then you’ll get stronger, and you’ll live longer,” says Agnew.
George Street Playhouse also unveiled a new website for their Austin the Unstoppable experience. It features song clips, a brief documentary and illustrated study guides for students and educators about both nutrition and theater.