The folks responsible for the musical Witness Uganda were seated in a circle of folding chairs in a large mirrored Vineyard Arts Project studio Tuesday afternoon, taking a needed break from their rehearsal schedule to talk about the origins of their project. Writer and director team Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews offered tales of their travels to Africa, shared stories of the Ugandan university students around whom the script is based, and introduced two of their star actors, Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson.
“Would you like to hear a song?” asked Mr. Gould, as the brief interview concluded and it was time to get back to work.
As a matter of fact, yes.
Mr. Gould took his seat at the piano while Mr. Matthews stood by. The two actors stood feet apart, smiling timidly in the silence of the vast studio.
And suddenly, the room erupted in music as the players launched into a performance of the song Beautiful. The sound called forth images of red-velvet curtains and brightly-bulbed theatre marquees, as a stunned silence hit the four spectators scattered throughout the room, including Vineyard Arts Project executive director Ashley Melone and ArtFarm artistic director Brooke Hardman Ditchfield. The two women are responsible for the collaboration that will bring the musical Witness Uganda, as well as the two other plays, Disgraced and Big Babies, to Vineyard theatre lovers as part of their New Writers, New Plays project. They both knew they were in the presence of great potential. After all, they’d chosen the project participants from among the most talented of their friends and connections in the theatre world, mostly in New York.
But they hadn’t yet seen the goods in action. Seated together in a doorway of the studio, the women’s faces were a combination of satisfaction and surprise as they heard the song performed for the first time. This was no amateur act.
“Didn’t we tell you?” said Ms. Hardman. “We have brought some amazing, amazing artists here.”
The project works like a residency program for three up-and-coming playwrights. The writers were invited to the Island for three weeks of complete immersion into their work: writing, rehearsing, eating and sleeping at the Vineyard Arts Project property, located on Upper Main street in Edgartown. In return, they stage a three-day performance with a festival feel for Vineyarders to enjoy. The event began yesterday and will conclude tomorrow.
“The opportunity for a playwright to come and be away from the city, away from their day job, away from the pressures of whatever else they’re doing and to just write, I know, is a huge opportunity,” said Ms. Hardman.
“ArtFarm and Vineyard Arts basically started around the same time and our missions are very much the same: to help develop new work [in performing arts]. ArtFarm has a focus in theatre, and we thought this would be a really great collaboration,” said Ms. Melone.
Even better, the duo shares the belief that the arts should be accessible to everyone.
“We wanted to make sure that it was a pay-what-you-can event, because right now we know that things are tough financially for a lot of people, and we feel very strongly that that shouldn’t dictate whether or not you get to participate in art and theater and culture,” said Ms. Hardman.
And so, beginning yesterday, Island art lovers were invited to the grounds of the Vineyard Arts Project to see the three plays read consecutively, with receptions in between. The food is provided by Morning Glory Farm, the music by the ArtFarm theatre company PigPen. And for each of the three days, the crew varies the lineup. “All the shows will rotate,” said Ms. Hardman. “So you could come for a whole marathon, or you could come every day and see something different at the same time. Each play is going to get three readings.”
The event is funded through a combination of private donors and grants, but Ms. Hardman and Ms. Melone, who expect the festival to become an annual event, hope to someday have it endowed. “The idea of being able to adopt a playwright and sort of sponsor their time here is something we really want to explore and offer to people. Because it actually doesn’t cost a lot when you think about it, in the grand scheme of things,” said Ms. Hardman.
“Artists are so often given the short end of the stick, which is so unfair because they’re creative people,” said Ms. Melone. Working flexible hours in big cities is not always feasible, especially when it comes to using studio space and traveling back and forth to rehearsals. “It’s often hard to work within those parameters all the time,” she said. “[Here] you don’t have to deal with commuting, it kind of pares down all the excess stuff and says, focus on the art.”
It’s not a quiet house, necessarily, but the abundance of art-minded residents does foster creativity. On Tuesday afternoon, two young men worked on a paper sculpture outdoors, while inside artists took to different corners of the house to write, rehearse or grab a bite to eat.
Playwright Matthew Wilkas, author of the play Big Babies, was busy tinkering around the kitchen making a turkey sandwich before he sat for a short interview about his work.
“The play is about a woman who is addicted to being a surrogate,” said Mr. Wilkas bluntly, of the premise of his play. He said he got the idea from an article he’d read about a woman who’d shaped her life around carrying children for others. The article was more factual than reflective, said Mr. Wilkas. It didn’t dive into the reasons why the woman did what she did. But it got him thinking.
“It fascinated me, because in a way, I related to her. I think I understand what it means to need to feel you are doing something meaningful for people,” he said. “As an artist, that’s sort of all I do, is create things so that I can get attention for them. That’s sort of the point.”
But there is often a hefty price to pay. “She literally creates life for people,” he said of the woman in the article. “But at what cost? It’s made her a totally alone person. She’s unmarried, doesn’t have any of her own children, and yet what’s keeping her from doing that is essentially what she loves to do.” As an artist, Mr. Wilkas said his experiences sometimes parallel that idea. “It’s about the struggle between a desire to be useful and have meaning, and also to want to be a normal person, with a family and that sort of thing,” he said.
In another studio, Mr. Gould and Mr. Matthews continued rehearsals for Witness Uganda. The pair was drawn to one another through their individual experiences in Africa, where Mr. Gould was a Peace Corps volunteer. Mr. Matthews spent time in Uganda, where he met a group of teens who had lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic. He soon decided that he would help to fund their university educations and launched the nonprofit Be the Change Uganda.
The musical, which weaves together the stories of those students, was composed to help gain attention and funding for that cause. An abridged version of the original will play at the New Writers, New Plays festival.
The workshop’s third offering is Disgraced, an intense interracial domestic thriller, written by Ayad Akhtar and directed by Will Frears.
“There’s something for everyone,” said Ms. Hardman, of the event. “There’s a musical, there’s a drama, there’s a comedy. They are very socially conscious. They are current...I love the idea of being able to come here and go through that kind of a spectrum in a day with theatre.”
Plays begin at 1, 4 and 7 p.m. today and Saturday at Vineyard Arts Project, 215 Upper Main street in Edgartown. For details or reservations, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go online to artfarmenterprises.com/theatre/newwriters.html.