‘Witness Uganda’ kicks off Park City Institute’s fall season
Griffin Matthews and Matthew Gould’s musical "Witness Uganda," which will open the Park City Institute’s fall and winter season, started as a rant, shortly after the two New York-based musical theater actors met.
"Griff and I became friends in 2008 and he was running this nonprofit in Uganda called the Uganda Project that was sending 10 children to school," Gould said during a telephone interview with The Park Record. "That year was when the economy tanked and he was having a hard time raising funds, because people didn’t have any money to give.
"Off handedly, I suggested that we write a musical about the organization and use that as a fundraiser, and he said, ‘That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,’" Gould said. "Then he kept raving how hard it was to raise money, so I recorded his rant and wove music through it."
Shortly thereafter, the two put together a benefit concert to raise money for the Uganda Project.
"At first we thought it would be a one-night event, but people seemed to be moved by the story," Gould said.
That story was about Matthews’ plight to help with a Ugandan orphanage a few years before he established Project Uganda.
"I volunteered for a project in Uganda for six weeks and was supposed to work at a village orphanage and quickly discovered that the Ugandan pastor who was running the program was corrupt and embezzling money," Matthews said during the same telephone interview. "I took a walk to clear my head one day and ran into a group of kids."
Matthews spent the whole day with the children.
"They showed me where they lived and told me about their lives and wanted to know about my life in New York," he said. "I asked them what I could do to help them and they told me that they wanted to go to school.
"I didn’t have any money at the time to make that happen, but I met with them the following day to teach them some school lessons," Matthews said. "Of course, I had no idea what I was going to teach because I’m an actor, but we got together and talked about friendship and politics. It was a class about community and about finding out who we were in the world."
Six weeks later, Matthews had formed a strong friendship with the children.
"I went back to New York and would raise money through parties and flew back in the winter with enough money to put the kids back into school," he said.
Gould saw Matthews’ story was really about their generation and their responsibility to the world and how they could help and that theme struck a chord with their audience.
"People came up to us and told us to keep working on the benefit and do more and make a musical," Gould said.
Over the last five years, the small benefit concert has turned into a full-fledged musical fundraiser, and it will make its Broadway premiere, directed by Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus, in 2015.
"This show is the reason why we’ve been able to keep the 10 kids in school," Gould said.
One of the good things about the Uganda Project is that Matthews decided to keep things small.
"We did that on purpose because the kids didn’t have a strong family structure and I wanted to make this like their family," Matthews said. "It wasn’t about getting numbers of kids in school but rather, the ones we knew."
Over the past nine years, the children have become Matthews’ and Gould’s closest friends.
"Matt and I go to Uganda once a year to check on their progress," Matthews said.
Matthews and Gould met in 2005.
"I had been in the Peace Corps in West Africa from 2001 to 2003 and I think the African connection is what brought us together when we first met," Gould said. "There aren’t a lot of people in musical theater community that had spent a lot of time there and had a passion for the people there."
Needless to say, Gould couldn’t wait for his first visit to Uganda.
"It was thrilling to get to meet those students," he said. "Since we had been working on the show, I already knew some of the kids and over the past five years, they have really become part of my families."
One of the challenges of developing Matthews’ experiences into a musical was selecting which experiences to highlight.
"If you were going to create a show that encompassed every single experience we have shared, the audience would sit in the theater forever," Gould said. "I think the goal was to create something that was real and rooted in authenticity, but was also exciting and dramatic.
"This is something that Griff and I do," Gould said. "We’re storytellers and we tried to create something that gravels with the challenge of our generation in a thrilling and exciting way."
The finished musical had its world premiere in February and since then has been performed in various formats.
"We’ve done this as a two-man version, which we will be doing in Park City, and we’ve done this as a full-blown musical," Matthews said. "When we first started this, I didn’t think people would be interested in what we did."
But that changed after its premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge.
"It was a crazy experience because I wasn’t able to get into Harvard for school, but I was invited by these professors who saw the show to speak to their classes," Matthews said. "It’s been quite surprising and fulfilling when people respond to our work. More than that, it’s been great to know that people want to hear the story.
"We wanted to allow for conversations to be started and the most exciting part is that we’ve found people want to talk about it," he said. "The show touches on world responsibility as Americans, religion, sexuality and the fact that we’re all connected through the Internet. And though we’ve done it so many different ways, but have had the same response."
"We feel that we created something that is something that isn’t just meaningful, but accessible to all ages and for people who want to go to theatre for a good time," Gould said.
The Park City Institute will present Griffin Matthews’ and Matthew Gould’s "Witness Uganda," on Saturday, Nov. 1, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $69 and are available by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org or by calling 435-655-3114.
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