Imagine 17 New Yorkers leave the Big Apple to head to Uganda. On their way to the poverty-stricken country in East Africa — where crime is rampant and it's illegal to be homosexual — they get split up on the journey.
"We got delayed in Detroit," explains Griffin Matthews. "We flew from New York to Detroit, and we missed our connecting flight to Europe, so all of us got split up, and it was chaos. We were at the airport, and it was like our worst nightmare coming true. It was like: 'Half of you go this way. Half of you go this way. You two get on that plane…you two…' And, we just got split up all over the world. Some people got stuck in Detroit for 24 hours. I, with one of the filmmakers, got sent to Amsterdam for a 10-hour layover. [Some] were in London. It was just terrifying. Terrifying!"
Matthews is the co-creator of Invisible Thread, the new musical transporting audiences from its Second Stage Theatre home on 43rd Street to the deserts of Uganda.
The aforementioned adventure of disarray and confusion took place in August, when Matthews and his boyfriend (Invisible Thread co-creator) Matt Gould took their cast to Africa — a long-awaited voyage to the setting of their show. It was a chance to finally meet the Ugandans the cast members embodied during the show's world-premiere run last winter at American Repertory Theater (where it was then titled Witness Uganda).
A homecoming, of sorts, the trip was to be documented (hence the filmmaker who ended up in Amsterdam with Matthews during the group's split). One of the real-life Ugandan students, sponsored by the organization that Matthews founded in 2005 (UgandaProject), was getting married and invited the troop to perform at his wedding in Kampala.
Matthews first met his Ugandan friends a decade ago, and Invisible Thread captures the story from its onset. The documentary-styled drama pulls almost entirely from the duo's real-life experiences. Meeting the teenage Ugandans, providing them with an education and then leaving the foreign country inspired them to write the musical at hand. Audiences also see the creation of the piece that plays out before their eyes, and Matthews stars as himself.
Despite the confusion of the 2015 Uganda trip with the cast, Matthews says, "What happened inside of that [chaos] was people really started to understand the journey — that it was hard, and it was difficult, and everyone was getting pushed and pulled in so many different directions — so when we all finally landed in Uganda about a day-and-a-half apart, we were so grateful to be together, and our kids were so grateful that everyone had done such treacherous travel to get to them. It was like an instant bond.
"I think that's kind of what making a musical is," continues Matthews. "You're just constantly being pushed and pulled and changed and: 'Go there! And go there!' It takes so many people to put on a musical, [and] I think that what happened for the cast was that they started to own it in a way that they never owned it."
For most cast members, it was the first time they'd been to Uganda. But, for Matthews and Gould, it was just another visit to what they call their "second home."
"I always said that once you've been to Africa, you are strangely pulled back," says Matthews, who made the first trip in 2005. "I didn't choose Uganda; Uganda chose me."
It was a time of internal struggle for Matthews. He was 23, living in New York City as a recent college graduate, and like most artists, he was trying to "find" himself. He was dealing with his identity and trying to find a place within his church as a young gay man, as well as his voice as a performer in one of the biggest cities in the world.
"An opportunity came up for me to go and explore in Uganda, and I took it," he says, documenting the beginnings of what is now his Off-Broadway show. "I obviously had no idea that it was going to turn into all of this, but I was just supposed to go volunteer for six weeks, and I met a group of teenagers who ultimately changed the course of my life."
The teens he encountered, who function as the centerpiece of the story, are uneducated and yearning for purpose. In the story, much as in real life, Griffin becomes their teacher and will stop at nothing to ensure that he provides his students with a better life.
Enter: Ryan, the boyfriend who makes Griffin's dreams become reality (and, as real life has it, an Off-Broadway show at one of the city's most acclaimed developmental companies for new work). Though he is played by Corey Mach, the role of Ryan was inspired by Matt Gould (instead of performing in the show like Matthews, Gould is the music director).
Before the two met, Gould had spent two years living in West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. "I went for many of the same reasons that Griffin went," Gould explains. "When I came back, I was a struggling actor and composer in New York City and heard about this guy who had spent time in Africa and was like, 'I've got to meet this other musical theatre guy who has been to Africa!' We just sort of started a friendship based upon our experiences abroad."
Friendship blossomed into a relationship, and before long, the two were linked by an invisible thread that would only tighten its grip around one another as time went by.
Secretly, as they discussed their experiences and brainstormed ways to help their Ugandan friends, Gould recorded the conversations.
"Having spent two years in West Africa, it filled me up as an artist, and I knew that there was some way to tell that story, and my medium was musical theatre," says Gould. "I had just seen Anna Deavere Smith's play Let Me Down Easy…and the way that she had used interviews to create a theatrical piece, I thought, 'I wonder if you could do that with a musical — if you could interview people and take those interviews and do a documentary-style kind of thing.' So I started carrying a recorder with me everywhere I went and secretly — at first — recorded [Griffin's] rants about trying to raise money for his students in Uganda, and I was captivated by that because I was like, 'That is what I experienced living in West Africa.'
"It was hard. It was wonderful, but it was awful; and it was beautiful, but it was sad. It was all of these things mixed up together, and that is, for me, what is at the heart of all drama," says Gould. "It's this weird push and pull of beauty and horror. I mean, that is what makes a great play, so yeah… I started recording him, and at that time, our organization [UgandaProject] was having trouble raising money. It was 2008, and I said, 'Why don't we make this a musical, and we'll fundraise, and it will be an amazing way to do it.' And, Griffin was like, 'That's the worst idea ever!' It really is the worst idea ever because you can't really make money trying to write a musical and making it a fundraiser, but six-and-a-half years later, here's where we are."
Invisible Thread documents the whole experience — Matthews and Gould's initial trips and the making of the musical itself. Slightly steering from reality, Griffin is already in a relationship when the musical begins, and he travels to Uganda for the first time — pitting the strain on the relationship center stage. Throughout the musical, the two go back to Africa to help their Ugandan friends in need.
"It's actually about building relationships with people across borders, so that we can also be helped by them, so that we can also learn things from them," Gould says. "Those were lessons that, as artists, I think that we felt were extraordinarily important to share."
Additionally, the pair wanted to bring reality to the stage and spark a conversation. "People need the truth. People want the truth now," Gould continues. "I think for a long time, we went to the theatre to escape, and I think that we spend so much time in our lives escaping now — we walk through Times Square, [and] you see people homeless, people asking for money, begging for food, and we walk by, and it's too much, so we escape [by way of social media]. I think we [now] come into the theatre because it is the one time in our lives when we can just have two-and-a-half hours of the truth, so that we can go back into our lives — back into our holes — and shut it all down again, but hopefully, with a new, deeper understanding of what life is."
Their friends, the teenagers Matthews met in Uganda, have been informed of every step in the theatrical process. At first, their reaction was, "What's a musical?! What's that?! What does this mean?! What is this thing 'Invisible Thread'? What's an invisible thread?" Now, they crave to learn more about the musical taking New York City by storm. "We sent them pictures of the sets," says Matthews, "and one of our kids said, 'Please tell me—'"
"'—this is not the theatre where you are doing the show?!'" Gould interjects. I said, 'It is the theatre where we are doing the show.' [She said, in disbelief], 'Oh my God! This is Uganda! This is Uganda!'
"I think that they're excited. I don't want to put words in their mouth, but I think it's exciting for them to be a part of something I hope is a positive portrayal of a place that we love, that they love — that's not poor, poverty, miserable, sad, starving people, but that's just people living their lives joyfully and trying to achieve, maybe, the same things we're trying to achieve here.
"One of our former students came to see the show on the first preview. He was in the U.S., so he saw it," says Gould. "In his words, he said, 'As I was living it, I never thought it would come around again, and that I would see it in this way.' They're excited, in some way, to be a part of it."
When the cast stepped off the plane in Uganda for the first time this summer, "Our Ugandan students, who were friends on Facebook with our cast, they walked up to them," says Gould. "They were like, 'Nicolette! Kristolyn! Rodrick…!' They knew them; it was amazing."
Matthews adds, "We felt like [the students] had to be a part of it because they've inspired so much of it, and I think that they feel very…"
"Connected," Gould concludes. "Invisibly."