More than just a play

“We’re not training kids to become artists but teaching them to think like one. Using imagination and collaboration to solve problems is imperative to breaking cycles of poverty.” – Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Founder and Co-Executive Director of Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP).

This intention resonates throughout the work of Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP), a nonprofit that creates engaging arts education programs for schools and community organizations in the U.S. and around the world. One example of using the arts to teach important life skills is our partnership with Teach for India (TFI).

In 2013, ASTEP and TFI spent over a year building a musical to be performed by deeply low-income school children in central India. Featuring an original script and Broadway composed music, MAYA: the musical follows Princess Maya on her whirlwind journey of self-discovery.

Tasked to bring light back into her Kingdom, Maya and her friends use the values of courage, compassion, and wisdom to lift three curses that have been cast on the world.

The cast of 100 students performed 11 shows in Mumbai and Pune for over 10,000 audience members. But MAYA is more than just the promise of a spectacular show. It is the perfect vehicle for the arts to foster life skills such as communication, confidence, and teamwork, which are pillars of ASTEP’s mission.

Portrait of Priyanka, a young girl Priyanka first came to ASTEP and TFI looking for an after-school activity and a place to go until her parents came home from work. (Photo: ASTEP)

An exciting additional benefit is the way it nurtures youth leadership for the children involved: for example, to practice acts of kindness, a student-led project works to spread happiness in 100 ways through the arts in their local communities.

For children who often lack access to quality education and extracurricular activities, MAYA has given them opportunities to further their personal growth and achievement. Like Maya, these children have been on a whirlwind journey where they discover their values, potential, and how they can shine their brightest light.

One of the students cast in MAYA was Priyanka Patil, a gentle 14-year-old-girl.

Priyanka came from a humble family, raised by her mother who worked feverishly to support her daughter without the support of her abusive husband. Priyanka’s mother had modest dreams for her daughter: study up to grade 12, get married, and have the happy family that she never had.

Priyanka was encouraged to audition for MAYA when a teacher noticed her love and enthusiasm for theater. Hopeful, Priyanka committed to auditioning — though members of her extended family expressed their disapproval.

“Before MAYA, I would sit the whole day...just talking to myself," said Priyanka.

Priyanka was cast as Ska, the snake who helps the Princess on her journey of self discovery. Ska also helps Maya find that the light she was seeking had always lived inside of her, and shines brightest when she shows the world her courage, compassion, and wisdom.

Young girl in play in character Priyanka in character as her snake in MAYA: the musical. (Photo: ASTEP)

The astonishing thing, though, was that this newly written musical slowly enabled the entire cast to see the courage, compassion, and wisdom within themselves as well. Priyanka, in particular, felt the message was speaking directly to her:

“Maya was trapped in her palace, locked in those four walls, and so was I...just like Maya’s journey, I had to struggle to find my voice. I knew that I had a light that wanted to shine. I knew that I had a voice that wanted to come out.”

Through her experience and connection with ASTEP and MAYA, Priyanka was offered a scholarship and opportunity to attend United World College, a select two year pre-university program that brings together students from all over the world with the aim to foster peace and international understanding. Now acutely aware of all that she was capable of and all that she could accomplish, she applied to college and received a full scholarship to a private college in Pennsylvania.

“To enable someone to explore themselves, it’s important that we provide them with space — as society we always keep limitations on each other — we are always trapped in this box where there are rules and impositions and criticisms around us. If we get out of that box, we will start finding out what we want, what we like, what are our personal opinions. It’s important that everyone should get a chance to explore, to innovate, to discover themselves.”

Out of that box and in college now, Priyanka has been given an immeasurable gift: an awareness and examples of the power she holds within herself. She has her sights set on changing her world globally as well as locally — doing for others what was done for her:

"I think that every one of us is extraordinary and every one of us has a unique thing and it’s important that we all find that gift."

Even though her journey began in the small town of Pune, she now sees the whole expanded world available to her and all children. Children around the world, regardless of their circumstances, should be able to see the wide horizon that can be theirs.

ASTEP exists to fulfill this need. Through arts programming, partnerships with community organizations, and working with underserved communities, ASTEP is working to awaken imaginations, foster critical thinking, and help students break the cycle of poverty.

"When people start asking why, that is when we will start finding answers to every critical question. Asking 'Why?' is [what] guides us towards change."
ASTEP logo

ASTEP was conceived by Broadway Musical Director Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Juilliard students to transform the lives of youth using the most powerful tool they had: their art. Today, ASTEP connects performing and visual artists with underserved youth in the U.S. and around the world to awaken their imaginations, foster critical thinking, and help them break the cycle of poverty.

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