An Interview with Mary-Mitchell Campbell

Written by Victoria Myers

August 4th, 2014

Mary-Mitchell Campbell is the type of person who will give up her free time to help someone else. You might think we’re only (only?!) referring to the charity she founded and runs, ASTEP,which stands for Artists Striving to End Poverty (but really means much more), but we’re also talking about all of the small things she does, like taking the time to talk to young composers about their music—which is, of course, no small thing at all. Mary-Mitchell is one of the most accomplished and innovative Music Directors working in theatre—go listen to the cast recording of the 2007 Broadway revival of Company, for a start. She has the ability to make even the most cynical person think musical theatre is the coolest thing ever (we bet you ten metaphorical dollars you’ll consider signing up for piano lessons after reading this). Also, given her passion about arts education and humanitarian work, we totally wouldn’t mind if she ran for public office. She’s a first-rate musician and a first-rate humanitarian.

(i.) Present

Music directing seems like it sits at an interesting intersection of both interpreting content, but also creating it.
I would say it’s more heavily on the interpretation [side] than the creation. Because the creation really depends on the team you’re working with—meaning certain situations allow themselves for way more creativity than others. Sometimes you are doing interpretation and creatively interpreting what they’ve given you. But other times you are creating the arrangements, creating the dance arrangements, creating the underscoring, or, in some cases, taking a melody—or someone hums something to you—and you’re creating a song. It can range really wildly, actually.

You’re working on Finding Neverland. It has a British pop-sounding score, but it takes place in Victorian England. How do you balance that when creating a sound musically and for the actors?
We have decided to meld these two very oppositional worlds. But, from a music standpoint, the sound is really being created by the entire music team—largely by the writers, Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. And Diane [Paulus] who is, obviously, an incredibly strong female director, has an enormous amount to say about what the sound is. As does AnnMarie Milazzo, who is a really strong female vocal arranger. The two of them have a lot to say about what they envision. Then it’s trying things out. Auditioning them in the room. And sometimes we like it, and then three days later, we hate it. Trial and error.

(ii.) Interpretation

Musical theatre can sometimes have a lot of archetypes and pre-existing associations with different sounds. Are those archetypes, and how to subvert or enhance them, something you think about?
I’m not a big fan of those preconceived things. Only in the sense that I don’t like being boxed into doing something the way it’s supposed to be done. If it’s a revival, I’m much more interested in the reinvention of it. If it’s a new piece, my theory is we don’t know what it is yet and we get to create it. It doesn’t have to fit into anything that’s ever happened before. It can be completely different and totally new. So it’s about, how do we play with that?

What are your thoughts on interpretation? Because you’ve done a few shows where you’ve reinterpreted.
I’d say I’ve done three: Sweeney Todd, Company, and Carrie. I’d say, conceptually, Road Show was a reinterpretation of what Sondheim had written—even though it had never really come in, but we were reinventing some of what had happened before. In those cases, you sort of want to play around with every option. I think it depends on how safe the room is too, which is also dependent on the director. But I’ve happened to work with great directors who are so willing to let us play in a room.

We like to talk about theatre as a living, malleable thing. Not set in stone. How important do you think having that freedom to play is? Especially if you’re doing a revival?
I think you have to have room to play. If you’re doing a revival you have the opportunity to reset the show on the people you’ve cast, which to me is so important. If you’re doing a revival that’s a concept revival (that I’ve done several of now) you’re setting a concept, as well, on top of completely different people. So you want to honor those things at the same time. I think it’s crucial in those instances. I’m getting ready to do Allegro at Classic Stage [Company] with [director] John Doyle again. And I think that’s a show that had a lot of issues both in and out of town, and doesn’t get revived often. So I’m sort of delving into that world now, and thinking a lot about how to reinvent that but still be true to the original. It’s actually quite fun to me. Because you have source material, but you also sort of get to dress the baby in different clothes.

(iii.) Representation

You’re one of a handful of female music directors. Why do you think there aren’t more?
Well, the good news is there have become more and more since I started in New York City. When I first moved to New York, I felt like I was really one of very few and now I feel like the club has gotten bigger. So I feel like that’s really optimistic and positive. Why there aren’t more? I think it has to do with relationships because the way we get hired is so relationship based. And I think for anybody—male or female—you sort of have to prove your way in. People don’t necessarily want to give you a big multi-million dollar show to control if you’ve never done it before. It’s that whole catch-22 of, you don’t have experience so you can’t get experience. That thing. But I also think it’s a lot of just who you know in life. I think if you go to certain schools or if you’re in certain networks, that can be quite helpful, and I’d say the majority of those networks aren’t necessarily geared towards women. But, that said, it feels like we’re definitely on the rise. So hopefully there’s going to be more.

From your vantage point, why do you think there aren’t more musicals by women being produced?
The only reason that I can come up with is that they just don’t have the access to the people with the money to produce them. Because they’re great. I know so many fantastic writers. And then there are a couple who do break through. I mean Jeanine [Tesori]—she’s been one of my idols ever since Violet—I love how she has managed to just sort of work her way through and bust out. But she started out as a music director and then made the switch since she had this voice she wanted to get out into the world. But I do think it’s that we don’t have as much access. Not getting into the right rooms and people aren’t putting the money into it.

The playwriting inequality seems to get talked about a lot more than the musical theatre writing part. Why do you think that might be?
Because I think the women playwrights have started raising their voices. And I think the women composers need to start raising their voices.

Did you ever feel the need to present yourself a certain way to get taken seriously? Or alter things in terms of femininity?
I think we all alter ourselves, as we get older, towards trying to understand what it is to be more professional in whatever it is you’re doing. So I definitely did that. It’s hard to pinpoint if that was also an issue dealing around femininity. I can tell you that I had really long hair and I cut it, and that seemed to impact people in a relatively big way that I was not expecting. And I cut it because John Doyle made me cut it. He was quite emphatic that I cut it. I had really long hair. He felt like I was hiding behind it. I don’t think it was so much about the length of my hair as what it represented. From him spending time with me, that is what he felt. He was like, “You need to stop hiding. You need to cut your hair. You need to do something dramatic.” And that’s what happened. And then I’ve kept it short ever since. It even got a little shorter. I don’t know what that means but it definitely seems to be tied into something. I ultimately think it just has to do with whatever makes you self-confident. Or, in my case, stop feeling like you have to hide.

(iv.) Identity

Music has been part of your life from the age of three. How do you think it helped shape your identity?
It was my identity. I think music was the way I processed everything. All of my emotional maturity was processed through playing the piano and playing music. And trying to understand myself, and the world, and the feelings I had about the world through playing. And I do think that it saved my life on a lot of levels. From just the things I was dealing with when I was a kid—anytime I was depressed or felt not cool enough to be with the popular people at school or insecure—that was the thing that was my rock. I think the arts are so important to that ability to find confidence and self-worth.

What is your relationship to music? We often hear people talk about visualizing it. Does it take on a physical life for you? Is it living? Is it anthropomorphic?
I definitely have the color concept. There are times when I’ll see colors. More than anything, I feel like a lot of music just encapsulates me. I get sort of pulled into it. It’s like going into a wormhole of some sort. Like into another dimension of something. And when I’m very focused playing music it’s like time stops. I’ve had a couple of performances where I remember starting and I remember finishing, but I don’t remember what happened in the middle.

Do you remember the first piece of music that had a major impact on you?
Oh gosh. I mean I remember falling in love with Sondheim when I was in high school, and being really into the sort of mixture of intellectualism of the lyric and the storytelling concept. When I was sixteen I saw a production of Baby that Lauren Ward played Lizzy in and I remember thinking, “I’m not going to do classical piano. I’m going to tell stories through music like this.”

Was that the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you as well?
I think it was that. Prior to that, I was doing lots of classical music and I was making up stories for my classical pieces. My teacher probably thought I was nuts because I’d come in and say, “I’m doing this Chopin Ballade and this where the town is really peaceful and at this point I’ve decided that a flood comes in and destroys the town and at this point…” And I’d have this storyline in order to keep myself engaged in where the piece was going.

So you were imbuing music with character from an early age?
Yes. I also had a major fear of performing. I’ve always been a person who liked being behind the scenes. I wanted to perform, but I didn’t want to be seen. It goes back to the hiding thing. So I came up with this thing—like through college—I created a character that I would be when I had to do performances. She was a concert pianist. She toured the world. I had a backstory. I felt like if I went out as myself it was just too weird. But if I was going out as a character… it was very strange, but it got me over the nerves.

Did you have an active fantasy life as a child?
I did have an active fantasy life. I had a lot of imaginary friends when I was a small child. Lots of them. All of my stuffed animals had backstories.

When did you first feel like a grown up?
I don’t think I’ll ever feel like a grown up.

(v.) Travel

You travel a lot. How do you think that affects your creativity?
I love travel. I think travel is probably one of the most important things anybody can do. The reason I love travel is because I feel traveling throws me so far out of my comfort zone, and it forces me to be open minded in a way that changes how I view the world. It changes everything. If you don’t travel, you can only process life through your own experiences, and your own experiences are so limited. And I think everything depends on how comfortable you are being out of your comfort zone. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s about that. So that’s why I love traveling. Plus, I’m just fascinated by other cultures.

What are your top five most evocative travel destinations you’ve been to?

  1. Darjeeling, India
  2. Hong Kong
  3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
  4. Zihuatanejo, Mexico
  5. Banff, Canada

Top five you want to go to?

  1. Alaska
  2. Hawaii (the two states I’ve never been to)
  3. Cambodia
  4. Canary Islands
  5. Machu Picchu

(vi.) Boundaries

Who were your heroes growing up?
When I was a child, musically, I loved Chopin. I loved the romantics, I loved Chopin and Liszt. And then I loved Sondheim. And then I loved Cy Coleman. And I grew up to work with both of them—I was really close with Cy. When I hit college I’d say it became about something totally different. I got really into Gandhi. I got really into social justice. I went into a whole different world of heroes. I’m trying to think who the women were. I remember Amelia Earhart having a really big impact on me as a child. I read her biography when I was in third grade and I thought how amazing it was that she was such a risk taker. I mean, now that I think about it, I was always the kid who was pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be female.

How so?
The best example I have of that is when I was in 6th grade, I was really into playing soccer, and there was an elite team in my area that toured the state and played other cities and regions. But it was all guys. And it didn’t even dawn on me that I couldn’t be part of it. It didn’t even cross my mind, “Oh you couldn’t be on it because you’re a girl.” I just showed up at the tryouts. And no one knew what to do because they weren’t expecting a girl to show up. So there was this awkward moment of, “Oh you’re here to try out for this? Hmm… Okay… Sure, I guess we can do that.” Then, when I made the team and traveled with them, there were a couple of things that had to be adjusted. We were traveling and there weren’t female chaperones. We had to change clothes and they didn’t have changing rooms because the boys could just throw off their shirts and throw on their jerseys. Just logistical things like that. They were minor, but set me apart a little bit. And I remember not having an issue getting on the team or thinking about it, but once I was on the team I was hyper aware that I wasn’t the same gender as everyone else. But I think it’s interesting that [prior to that] I never thought it was a problem.

Do you think that attitude has affected how you’ve handled things in your career?
I do. I think it’s a matter of making sure you’re doing the work and putting yourself out there and taking risks. And pushing boundaries, which I think is probably the most important thing. Not sitting back and waiting for people to show up for you, because you kind of have to make it happen, I think.

(viii.) Pivotal Moments

What do you feel was the most decisive moment in your career path?
Deciding to do Company, which was a hard choice, actually. I almost didn’t do it. I had just spent four months in India teaching in orphanages. And I felt that I’d come to a new sense of what art could do in the world—that it had this power to be so much bigger and so much more simplistic, to harness large groups of people and especially children. So I was pretty jazzed about it. And it was around that time that I met with John Doyle. My interview with him could not have been stranger. We kept missing each other and he finally caught me and said, “Are you in midtown right now?” I said, “Actually I am.” He said, “Let’s just do this right now. Let’s just have a quick 20 minute interview.” And I said, “Yes, but I’m in my gym clothes.” It was like your textbook worse nightmare of what an interview was going to be. I went to the interview and, because it was all so ridiculous, I was just brutally honest. So I thought, “Well, there’s no way I’ll get that job.” And then he offered me the job. We had a meeting and I said, “Listen, this sounds really amazing, and I love Stephen Sondheim more than life, and I think what you’re doing is really cool. However, I have this other thing that I’ve started [ASTEP] that I’m really passionate about. That I really feel is crucial. And I’m not sure that a show, any show, no matter how amazing, can out-balance that. And I don’t know if I can walk away from that.” And he said, “What if we work it out? What if you do both?” Which, on some level, was the first time I thought, “Oh, it’s possible to do both,” which was a really pivotal moment. Because from that point I was like, “Okay, I’m really going to go for this career wise, and I’m also really going to go for this humanitarian wise. And that’s a little insane, but I’m going to do it.”

You founded ASTEP after you got divorced. That is very different than going out and buying new clothes or moving to an island. What was it that inspired you to volunteer and then found a charity?
There were a lot of factors that really came into play. The main catalyst was the divorce. When everything is being forced to change around you, you’re a lot more open to whatever is showing up than you are if you’re in a more set place and you’re trying to make a big change. When there is no stability, then everything seems like an option. Secondarily, I was really wallowing. I was annoying myself. My initial impulse was that I wanted to go see what real problems look like. So I thought, “I’m going to go see what the world looks like,” and that’s when I decided to go India. My doorman in my building was from India and I said, “I’m actually going to go to India.” I had just randomly picked a city [to go to] and I picked the city of Bangalore. I asked him where he was from and he said Bangalore. And he was like, “When are you going?” I gave him the dates, and he said, “I haven’t told anyone in the building, but I’m actually moving back to Bangalore and I will be in Bangalore when you arrive. So I’ll meet you at the airport.” And he did. It was so metaphorical that this guy that had been opening my door everyday in New York City was then, in a way, opening my door to a new country. And I stayed with his family for the first two weeks I was in the country, and got to know them really well. It was really sort of spectacular. I spent four months there. And, upon coming back, was in this different space of what I wanted to do with my life.

(vii.) Humanitarian

Obviously everyone should go check out all the work ASTEP is doing, but could you tell us about one project?
One of the projects that I’m doing right now is a partnership with Teach for India—Teach for India is like Teach for America—and in a country that’s so impoverished, they’re working in the worst areas of the country, they’re pulling the best and brightest, and they’re training them to do a two year commitment working with kids in really adverse situations. The CEO contacted me last year and said, “The arts are so important. I know that and I want to fight for that.” And part of her idea was to celebrate the five year anniversary of Teach for India by writing a musical to be performed by children that are living in slums, to train them, and to perform this musical around the country. And she said, “And this is the storyline that we’ve come up with—it’s all about a little girl saving the world.” [This] in a country where you can’t test the gender of your child, because if you know it’s a girl you tend to abort. And if you don’t have enough food, you don’t feed the girls—the ways that girls are undercut and disparaged and undervalued. So we’ve created this new musical and I’ve pulled together all of these amazing people from New York. That project has been so inspiring to me as far as the whole gender equality issue goes. Especially for these girls. Because they’re so into it now. And they’re so convinced that they have worth beyond what they thought they had coming into this program.

[Editor’s Note: ASTEP has a lot of volunteer opportunities, both in the USA and abroad, and special college chapters]

(ix.) Arts Education

We believe that how we talk about things matters. What do you think could be improved upon in how we talk about arts education?
I think we have to stop thinking of arts education as an elective. The problem is that any group—any time you go for a grant—they want what they call measurable outcomes. They want statistics. And the problem with the arts is that it can’t be captured by numbers—that’s why it’s so special. The way it makes people feel, or the way it motivates them or inspires them. Or convinces children to open up their imaginations to think they could go to college. Or that they could help save their village from HIV. The things that you can inspire children to do through the arts can’t be captured in numbers. And that’s what we’re challenged by and we’re working on. I just went in for this grant for ASTEP for a program we do called ASTEP on STAGE, where we let artists go into different areas around the city and do a one afternoon performance workshop with a group of children. We work with a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, a group of children in the Bronx whose parents are in prison, and different places like that. I had to sit in a Board Room of all corporate people and they had to throw questions at me. And at the end of it they were saying, “Well, how can you prove that has an impact? What can you possibly do in a one afternoon workshop that’s ever going to make a change in a child’s life?” And I said, “I remember being in fourth and fifth grade and people coming to my school—and there are like three of them that I deeply remember—because they hit me at the right time, with the right message, and the right person. And they altered who I became. So, if you can remember that, that’s your proof.” And they were all like “Okay, yeah, I remember that,” and we got the grant. But that’s what’s so hard—proving the worth of arts education to people who don’t just automatically know it. The arts touch on all aspects of thinking and creativity. So much is connected to the arts.

And we, as a society, don’t ask those questions about sports.
No, we don’t. People don’t ask about that since they automatically go, “It builds teamwork. And discipline.” Well, so does ballet.

(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to help improve arts education?
I think speaking up about it. Continue to push for arts to be in schools, whether the schools are going to provide them or not. I think, if you’re a teacher, bringing in special guests. And you can incorporate the arts into any lesson plan—it doesn’t have to be an artistic lesson plan. That’s the really great thing about the arts. I’ve taught World War Two through The Sound of Music. I’ve taught HIV education through “Season of Love” and RENT. You can actually incorporate so much into a lesson plan if you’re willing to, and if you have the freedom to bring arts into the classroom.

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
When you’re considering people for jobs, make sure you’re being equal in the genders of whom you’re considering. I try to make sure I’m doing that if I’m considering somebody for a position—making sure I’m putting equal numbers of men and women in my final thoughts. It will go to the person who is the best suited, but anytime the person best suited is a woman I’m all the happier. But I do think there’s something to be said for making sure we’re interviewing in a more equal way. Because I do think a big part of the issue is access. And I think [to address access] we have to keep talking. Keep speaking out. Keep making sure people will remember. Because I don’t know if it’s necessarily about avoiding it, I think it’s just that people want to solve [hiring] in the quickest and easiest way possible. And I think if [gender equality] doesn’t come into their heads in that moment then it just doesn’t happen. Like, “Since I don’t know any, I’m not going to seek it out.” Instead of being like, “No, I should actually have a responsibility to seek it out.”

You can follow Mary-Mitchell on Twitter: @MaryMitchellC.