How Mary-Mitchell Campbell's Troubled Past Led to a Bright (but Busy) Future
The Broadway professional and philanthropist discusses what she gives up in order to give back.
"I don't sleep a lot," said Mary-Mitchell Campbell — sipping a cup of black coffee — in explaining her absurd work schedule. A Broadway musical director who's regularly balancing any number of shows and benefit concerts, Campbell is also the founder and executive director of ASTEP, a nonprofit that works internationally to change the lives of underprivileged children through art. She puts in full-time hours at both gigs, a feat that begs not only the question, "How do you do it?," but also, "Why?"
To understand Campbell's motivations, it is necessary to first understand her background. Though philanthropy and the arts are equally important in her life now, Campbell's love of music took hold before her other interests. "Professionally, I started playing piano in restaurants when I was ten, so I guess music came first," remembers Campbell, without any hubris or so much as a nod to the fact that the year your age hits double digits is incredibly early to be getting paid for your art. "I feel like piano chose me… I was sort of born wanting to play. I mean, I asked for a piano for Christmas when I was 3," she offers, by way of explanation.
"I think playing piano saved my life," she continues, "because I had a pretty challenging childhood and music was my way to deal with that. It became a really safe place to be." The seed for her philanthropic work was also planted during her troubled childhood, when, at the age of 14, she and her family lost their house to a fire. "We were homeless for a little while so there has been a personal connection to it." But it was music that began to propel her forward first, allowing her to leave home at age 16 to hone her piano-playing gift at North Carolina School of the Arts.
It was in her college years at Furman University, however, that Campbell began to find exciting ways of melding her two interests. "I founded a theater company at my school, and I decided to make all the shows about a nonprofit that we could benefit," she reminisces. "So like, we did The Fantasticks for Habitat for Humanity, and if you were in my show you had to build a house. That was the tradeoff."
Upon leaving college and her theater company (Pauper Players, a group that is still going strong), Mitchell moved to New York to pursue her dreams and spent some time "just trying to survive." But the struggle for survival didn't overshadow her passion for helping others. Mitchell immediately got involved with fundraising organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and began volunteering at their benefits. Though her interest was purely personal, Mitchell says that, looking back, she couldn't have had a better professional break. "I met Cy Coleman through a Broadway Cares event, and he basically adopted me early on," she remembers, "and then he introduced me at a benefit to Paul Newman, who [had] camps for kids — The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp." Mitchell recalled that these and a number of other fortuitous introductions all happened within her first year in New York.
It was when Mitchell began working at Juilliard, and met students who were "at the cusp of art for social change," like Mauricio Salgado, a transplant from Hurricane-ravaged Homestead, Florida, that her philanthropic goals came into sharp focus. Mitchell mentored Salgado as he put together an arts camp for the children from the predominantly Latino migrant families in his hometown. As Salgado assembled a troupe of Juilliard students to trek down the East Coast, Mitchell recruited her new friend Paul Newman to help fund the project. Soon, Mitchell was selling her house. "It was not quite as altruistic as it comes across," Mitchell insists, "because I had to sell my house for my divorce and when the money came out of escrow, I was like I'm never going to own anything again." She used the money from the sale as startup capital to fast-track the process of founding her own philanthropic nonprofit, ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty).
As Mitchell's road began to fork, there was a while during which she thought the musical-theater aspect of her life would disappear altogether — even after director John Doyle approached her about doing the orchestrations for the 2006 revival of Sondheim's Company. "My response was I don't know. I just committed to doing this thing, and there's people's lives at stake. And I really wanted to do this show…But it's a show. And I've kind of committed to this other thing, which is more life-and-death oriented." But Doyle was completely supportive of Mitchell continuing down both roads — his opening-night gift to her was a donation to ASTEP — foreshadowing the response of the industry as a whole in the coming years.
"I thought, wait, why does it have to be either or? There's no way I would want to give up either." So rather than take the fork, Mitchell decided to carve her own path and continue pursuing her dual passions. Mitchell makes it clear, however, that though her life is fulfilling, having two careers does involve making sacrifices. "Any choice you make has consequences, and you give up something no matter what you choose. There's certainly things I give up for having both careers, but I get so much more out of it than I sacrifice, so for me it totally works. It's like, there's that great Sondheim lyric [from Into the Woods], "Just remembering you've had an 'and,' / When you're back to 'or,' / Makes the 'or' mean more / Than it did before."