ASTEP in the Right Direction: Broadway Folk Bring Arts to Kids Who Never Knew They Needed It

Special Features   ASTEP in the Right Direction: Broadway Folk Bring Arts to Kids Who Never Knew They Needed It
 
Artists Striving To End Poverty (ASTEP), the non-profit organization run by Broadway orchestrator and music supervisor Mary-Mitchell Campbell, is making good on its mission of "mobilizing the global community of artists" to help kids in need.
Broadway's Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the artist-activist behind ASTEP.
Broadway's Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the artist-activist behind ASTEP. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Campbell, the Drama Desk Award-winning orchestrator of Broadway's Company, is part of a group of ASTEP folk made up of New York theatre people — including Philip McAdoo of Broadway's Rent and The Lion King — visiting South Africa in June and July to sweeten the lives of children there.

In recent days, Campbell met with eight members of the ASTEP team in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

"Our eight artist activists are collaborating with local artists to create a team that is leading a five-week arts camp for orphaned and vulnerable children affected by HIV," Campbell told Playbill.com. "There will be classes in music, drama, dance and creative writing."

In addition, she added, "We had a tap-shoe drive…and Capezio donated 100 pairs of new shoes, so many of the children will be learning tap this summer."

During the ASTEP residency, almost 50 kids are going on a field trip to Johannesburg, which is 10 hours away by bus. "They will be treated to a performance of The Lion King, a visit to the apartheid museum, a play at the Market Theater," Campbell said. "These are children who have never left their neighborhoods." Come June 29, there will be a joint concert with the Yale Alumni Chorus, which happens to be traveling through South Africa.

David Turner, of Broadway's In My Life and The Invention of Love and the national tour of Spamalot, is accompanying Campbell to film ASTEP's efforts, for a possible documentary.

Campbell pointed out that the trip to Johannesburg is being supported by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights "and their commitment toward HIV education and support for people living with HIV."

In addition to its arts camp program in South Africa, its plan to build an arts-based orphanage in India, and its work in a school for "untouchable" (lowest caste) children in India, ASTEP has a program in Homestead, FL, and does outreach in New York City. Where else might ASTEP grow to have a presence? The mission states that ASTEP addresses "communities with populations of impoverished children who have limited access to arts education." That could be any country in the world.

ASTEP's major public presence in New York City has been its ArtCents Benefit concerts that feature the work of emerging songwriters — as well as Broadway singers showing off their pop sides — in intimate evenings at which patrons show up with a jar of change for admission.

Founded in 2006, ASTEP — which has Broadway actress Anne L. Nathan, Tony winner John Doyle, Tony nominee Gavin Creel, Tony nominee Raul Esparza and Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth among members of its varied board — is dedicated to creating "positive change for young people in need worldwide."

A NEW PERSPECTIVE

In recent years, the sought-after Campbell earned a reputation as a tireless Julliard musical coach in the drama department there, a pit pianist, a music director, a music supervisor, an arranger and more.

Leading up to the 2006 creation of ASTEP, she was getting weekly calls to do music work of one sort or another, and she burned the candle at both ends.

"I think the reason I didn't say 'no' is because I was genuinely excited about so many things," she told Playbill.com. "I sort of thrive on that. I have an overabundance of energy and I really love the art form."

A shift in her life — but not a shift away from music or musical theatre — came in the last five years, following a divorce. "I think a perspective change came from the divorce — realizing that my 'problems' were not problems in the grander picture. I didn't really understand what real problems were. So my goal was to get a bigger perspective, and to go somewhere and do the kind of work that would give me the greater perspective, so I would understand how lucky I was. I knew I needed to be grateful but I wasn't feeling particularly grateful."

She raised eyebrows in the New York theatre community when she told friends and colleagues in 2005 that she was going to India for almost four months. "Were people shocked? Sure. I've always wanted to go to India, even as a child," Campbell said. "The goal was to get perspective — before I left, I knew there was the possibility of starting an organization. But it was just sort of an idea."

Did she think she was giving up show business?

She explained, "I think I was questioning giving up the business. I was starting to think, wait, maybe there's more."

POWER OF IMAGINATION

In India in 2005, she stayed with the Indian family of her Manhattan doorman for a week to get to know the culture. She then lived as a volunteer in a Bangalore orphanage for handicapped girls. "I learned a lot about true desperation, and serious poverty and real lack of resources and corruption," she said. "It was very eye-opening."

At the orphanage, she lifted the spirits of the girls by playing selections from — she hesitates sharing it because she doesn't want to sound cheesy — Annie, the Broadway musical about an optimistic orphan girl, and the Les Miserables song, "Castle on a Cloud, about another orphan girl dreaming of a better life.

"I learned how important it was for these kids to imagine," she said. "They've never been encouraged to imagine. They never had people say, 'It's good for you to imagine something better — or imagine something else.' That's the first step. These are also kids who didn't really know they might be good at arts. You watch their thought process — Oh, I'm good at this and I didn't know I was good at this, so maybe I'm good at other things that I don't know about, and maybe there are options for me that I'm not aware of."

Campbell can't help but conjure a line from a song by the late Cy Coleman, the composer who trusted her to work on his projects, including the musical Grace, in Holland. ASTEP introduces kids to the notion that — to steal Dorothy Fields' lyric from Coleman's Sweet Charity — "There's gotta be something better than this."

Campbell added, "I got to see the power of the arts, and see the power of art therapy. You can teach anything through art. I would teach social studies but I would make up songs about it. The kids are so hungry for art, so if you take the arts and infuse that with the other information they need, like hygiene and HIV education, then it becomes a multi-faceted experience."

The ASTEP board of directors is comprised of Mary-Mitchell Campbell (founder/chair), Michelle Miller (vice-chair), Queen Nworisara-Quinn (treasurer), Jessica Walling Stokes (secretary), Kristin Chenoweth, Mark Canavera, Gavin Creel, John Doyle, Raul Esparza, Deb Lapidus, Anne L. Nathan, Timothy Thomas, Pascal Van Kipnis and Susan Vargo.

In August, several members of the Broadway community will be joining Campbell for a trip to India to work in a school for untouchables.

For more information about ASTEP, visit www.createsomethinggood.org.

Today’s Most Popular News: