In 2010, Vineyard Arts Project (VAP) hosted a new playwriting team as part of their inaugural New Writers/New Plays residency. The musical “Witness Uganda” by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews was among three plays to be developed here that year and presented for the first time ever to Vineyard audiences. Since then, the show has enjoyed success and critical acclaim in a variety of venues.
And now, following a sell-out run at the prestigious American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, the rousing musical based on Mr. Matthews’s experience working with a group of African orphans is coming back to VAP for one night on Saturday, August 16. The performance here will be a presentation of selected musical numbers from the show.
“I really wanted to do a concert before the show blows up and ends up being a big flash in New York,” said VAP artistic director Ashley Melone.
The musical is based on Mr. Matthews’s humanitarian work in Uganda where he spent five years building a relationship with a group of orphans. He was so inspired by the spirit of the small group of impoverished teens that he became determined to help fund their education. When his fundraising efforts stalled as the economy collapsed, he and his partner Mr. Gould decided to create a musical to help raise money, as well as awareness of their organization, the Uganda Project.
Mr. Gould has created a series of memorable, joyful songs that combine traditional African music with rock and roll. Mr. Matthews, who wrote the show’s book, weaves the tale of the plight of the children with his own successes and frustrations as someone trying to make a difference in the world.
From the seeds of the first few musical numbers — which were presented as fundraisers to audiences throughout the country — the work evolved into a full-fledged musical, having been developed in a large part during a residency at VAP that included the actors/singers/dancers.
“The most important resources that a writer can have are time and space,” Mr. Gould said. “The Vineyard Arts Project provided us with those resources and gave us the chance to explore our piece with a depth we hadn’t ever been afforded. We’re returning to see if we can find some last touches of that magic before we move to Broadway.”
New Writers/New Plays cofounder Brooke Hardman explained how the play came to the VAP: “Matt and I went to college together at B.U. I knew he had been working on a couple of different musicals. I knew how brilliant he was. At our first meeting he played me some mp3 files on his phone. It’s an amazing thing to be part of a process like this. Musicals are so epically difficult to develop. They involve so many people. It’s such an honor for us to have played a small part in the success of this show. To see it go from just a few songs on an iPhone to a full-blown great musical at a great theater is such a thrill.”
Ms. Melone, a former dancer who previously ran the compound as a summer dance school, was impressed enough by “Witness Uganda” to commit herself to the show. “I fell in love with the piece,” she said.
The show has since gone on to receive a Richard Rodgers award and was then picked up by the American Rep where it was directed by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus.
VAP continues to serve as a choreography and dance residency, hosting some of the biggest names in both the theater the dance world.
“Witness Uganda” is one of a number of success stories with roots at VAP. Since its founding in 2008, shows developed at the compound have gone on to runs at Lincoln Center, the Public Theater, ARS Nova, and other esteemed venues. This fall, the play “Disgraced,” which was also part of the 2010 New Writers/New Plays series and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, will open on Broadway.
“I’m so thrilled that this was all part of our first year,” says Ms. Hardman. “We started with a bang. That’s what the festival is all about. It’s a great place to conceive and coax the work. We want to help give them legs so they can really run.”
“Witness Uganda,” Saturday, August 16, 6:30 pm, Vineyard Arts Project, Upper Main St., Edgartown. Pay-what-you-can admission available at vineyardartsproject.org and at the door; free for children. Proceeds benefit Uganda Project and VAP.