"Witness" in the classroom

by Brenna McDuffie '15

Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, the writers of the new musical Witness Uganda, are on a mission to spread a civic message through art. The story of Witness Uganda is based on a trip Griffin took to Uganda where he met a group of orphaned teens whose greatest desire was neither food nor money, but education. Matthews started a small nonprofit initiative to fund the students through collegeand realized that the attempt to help others, even 10 teens, was wrought with complexity. That is the story that drives Witness Uganda. "The show details the complexities of trying to help people in the world," says Gould.

Before the show opens at the American Repertory Theater in February, Gould and Matthews will complete an educational tour of schools in the Boston area. On Nov. 6, the artists stopped at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School to perform for and speak to high-school drama students. "We’re trying to resurrect people," the duo emphasized. "We want this piece to be a conversation starter," says Gould. As Gould and Matthews previewed musical numbers, shared stories about working with their students in Uganda and spoke about balancing a collaborative artistic relationship with their romantic relationship, the students giggled, cheered, gasped and applauded. Every youth in the room was captivated and moved.

Why bring these preview conversations to local classrooms? Gould and Matthews emphasized Witness Uganda as a story whose message is most pertinent to the U.S., and especially to younger generations. "The trick of Witness Uganda is that it’s actually Witness America. We're trying to explore what it feels like being an American in a third world country trying to change the world," said Matthews. "I think there’s something epic about this idea in our generation, about wanting to do something good for the world. We feel like we have a purpose and that’s a huge human thing that we’re trying to do in our lives," Gould added.

Many of the students in the room asked the two musicians why they decided to tell the story through musical theater.

"I think the power of music goes past the rational brain and goes right into some part of you that allows you to experience something deeper, and so I still think musical theater is one of the most powerful, under appreciated, underused art forms. It’s a tool to touch people’s hearts. This story felt like something operatic, like something that needed words. It needed the language of God the language of the universe, which to me is music," said Gould.

Eventually, the drama students eagerly posed questions about acting, the process of creating and the feeling of performing one's own work. The professional duo shared tips about songwriting and auditioning for theater school, and emphasized the importance of figuring out why one wants to pursue the arts. "Artists need to understand what they have to say," Gould told the students. "We became artists because we believe there are important things to say and to share with the world, and we still believe that theater is a holy experience and that it has the potential to change the way people look at things."

After the performance and a formal Q&A, many of the students hung around to talk to the artists and to ask questions about personal goals as aspiring artists. Zoe Burbridge, a senior at CRLS, spoke about how Gould and Matthews performance struck her as a young creator. "Sometimes, as a young artist, you get into this situation where you’re thinking, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing with this, where am I going, what am I trying to say,’ and I think the great thing about having people like Matt and Griffin come to talk about their process and their experiences and what they’re doing with their art is that it really jogs something in you. So now you think ‘Oh, OK, that’s why I’m doing this.’ It’s really inspiring," Burbridge said.

Brendan Shea, the education and community programs manager at A.R.T.., spoke to the students about viewing Witness Uganda as much more than an art project and encouraged them to become part of the movement. "Witness Uganda not only represents inspiration in an artistic sense, but inspiration in a very human sense, too. In Uganda, Griffin witnessed something and then he did something about it. That was a moment of inspiration. So I want to encourage all of you to do the same," Shea told the students. "When you witness something in Cambridge or at CRLS, and it inspires you to do something, tell us about it, share it with us, tell us what you’re doing how you’re using inspiration to make positive change. Because all of us have the opportunity to do that," Shea said.

Gould and Matthews also visited Lowell High School, Quincy Middle School, Harvard Divinity School and Boston University among other stops on their tour. For more information, visit the Witness Uganda Facebook page.

[Caption: Griffin Matthews (L) and Matt Gould (R) performed for students at CRLS, a local high school in Cambridge.]