BWW Interviews: Mary-Mitchell Campbell on ASTEP - A BIG FISH in Broadway's Charity Works Pond
MMC: Cy Coleman got me into that, because he was involved and he'd been music-directing these events. But he was in his early 70's and getting interested in reducing some of his work. My first camp, I had to sight-read for Isaac Stern, and that was trial by fire.
I blame Paul Newman and JoAnne Woodward for ASTEP - the way they leveraged the arts and artists for their kids. I've taken a page from their book. In fact, ASTEP just got involved with their camps this year as a joint program.
BW: And are you still music director for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS musicals?
MMC: I do a lot with Broadway Cares. They're a huge partner with ASTEP. I do BROADWAY BACKWARDS every year, the Easter Bonnets, things like that. I'm meting about some fundraisers this week. It's amazing, the movement that's been created out of Broadway Cares. They're kind of the parent of the artistic charity movement.
BW: And you do yet other charity work - there's your Sondheim concerts.
BW: What drives you to do good?
MMC: Cy and Paul certainly inspired me, but I've gained so much from my experiences. As an artist you can have all the technique in the world but it's nothing unless you have something to say. You have to try to figure out who you are. I traveled to do that; I threw myself into new experiences.
The biggest thing is the kids I work with. They're such sponges, and they appreciate that people show up for them. These kids' lives change, but I find my own life changing as much if not more, because of them.
We help kids imagine other options than the lives they have. We show that education is the key out. So many of our kids here go to college. We're having real success with that.
There's something about the visceral process of the arts. We have kids tell the stories of their lives so far. They act them, they sing them, they write them - it makes for such a difference to their lives to express what they've lived through in some way.
When I participate, as I did in India, I teach "Seasons of Love" from RENT, and afterwards these kids know that the song is from RENT, that it's about HIV, what HIV is, how it spreads, and they all want to go back home and share what they've learned. This makes a difference, and they're sharing that with others.
BW: ASTEP covers so much, doesn't it?
MMC: We mobilize artists to work with underprivileged children in different situations. We work in New York, Florida, Ecuador, and India. We have a two-week program now in South Africa, but some of our programs here are one-day events, depending on who's involved and what they're doing.
We're now working a 6-week summer academy for immigrant youth. It helps them adjust to being here, learning English, sharing their stories of getting here. The sharing helps them adjust. So many of them are coming from war zones.
Our primary focus as an organization will always be the children, but the secondary effect is to transform the lives of the participating artists. The artists come out of their programs so full of joy and gratitude when they see how they, as artists, can really change the world.
We're always looking for volunteers. Donations are always useful and important. People can come and work with children for just one day. We're all arts - theatre, music, dance, visual arts, poetry, writing. It's not just all actors. Everyone's welcome - everyone makes a difference to these children.
BW: Why is it so important for children to have arts training? What makes it so transformative? In an age of school budget crunches, arts are one of the first things to go - they're considered an expendable luxury.
MMC: People are aware of the correlation between arts and discipline, or between the arts and striving for excellence. We're not creating the best environment for our children when we deprive them of that. They don't see that the arts are a crucial part of child development.
Many studies do show that when students are involved with the arts their grades improve. So does school discipline, and there's a decrease in violence. It helps kids correlate working hard with achievement. It helps them channel things they're passionate about.
The current definition of success is limiting. What I do on Broadway is interesting - what I do with ASTEP is important. For me, success is doing projects I'm invested in, with people I care about working with. Any time a child decides she can become a doctor because of ASTEP, that's a success.
Did you see that incredible Times article about the convocation speech by George Saunders? It was about kindness. He gave it at Syracuse. It's about kindness - about what's important in life.
ASTEP, ARTISTS STRIVING TO END POVERTY, can be found at www.asteponline.org. Campbell's current show, BIG FISH, which begins previews in September and opens officially in October, has its official website at www.bigfishthemusical.com.