Surreal One-Act Captures Complexities of Autism
At the center of the distinctively nontraditional musical “Max Understood” is a seven-year-old boy with autism. He is a protagonist who does not change in any overt way during the course of the play, which, explains local theater artist Nancy Carlin, is contrary to the usual rules of playwriting, but is the truth of autism. Carlin wrote the book and collaborated with composer Michael Rasbury on the lyrics; the world premiere, almost 10 years in the making, opens this month in San Francisco.
It is not just the immutability of the main character that makes this surreal one-act so unusual and so challenging. The music itself begins with a layered overture, “Noise Symphony,” comprising leaf blowers, clunks, chirps, insistent microwave-oven beeps, sirens, ringing telephones. It continues with 16 songs, sung to the tracks of an electronic soundscore that represents the cacophony inside Max’s head. That, plus the repetitive lyrics—insistent snippets of the TV commercials that fascinate Max; a tinny-sounding toy machine that spews facts about American presidents (“Welcome to an interactive visit with the U.S. presidents. Press any button to begin”); Max’s parents’ despairing and continuous mantras: “Stuck stuck stuck/Stuck stuck stuck,” sings Mom at one point—form a dense, almost impenetrable, aural wall.
Carlin, best known locally as an acclaimed actor (American Conservatory Theater, California Shakespeare Theatre and elsewhere) as well as a director with a longtime penchant for writing, met Louisiana-born musician Rasbury (associate professor of sound design at the University of Virginia) when she was directing “12th Night” at Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and he was the show’s composer/sound designer. At the time, Rasbury’s son, Max, who is autistic, was seven years old. “He’d often quote entire things his son would say,” says Carlin. “I thought, that’s so cool, to communicate using these little sample bits. It intrigued me. I said, ‘We should write a musical about this’—a quirky, interesting piece about this kind of world. Michael said, ‘I don’t like musicals.’”
“I don’t appreciate the stereotype of musicals,” concurs Rasbury. “I didn’t want to write toward expectations.” He says “Max Understood," which, in the development process, was staged at Foothill Theatre in Nevada City, the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s prestigious National Music Theater Conference and the New York Musical Theatre Festival—is seen by some as a cross between musical theater and opera. David Schweizer, who has helmed world premieres by such playwrights as Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes and others, and who has worked off-Broadway and elsewhere, directs. The local Paul Dresher Ensemble and Fort Mason Center are co-presenters. (An accompanying exhibit, “Sound Maze for Max,” featuring 10 newly invented musical instruments collaboratively designed and built by Paul Dresher, Alex Vittum and Daniel Schmidt, opens April 4 at the Firehouse at Fort Mason and will be on view until May 3.)
Carlin and Rasbury, collaborating initially via email, began by imagining an adventure in which Max (to be played by Oakland fifth-grader Jonah Broscow), in helmet and with backpack and scooter, ventures outside the house, unbeknownst to his stressed-out parents. There, the kids in the neighborhood (played by young adults) become manifestations of his obsessions, each one teaching him a skill in childhood development. So Max’s toy horse, Pegasus, becomes Peg, a chubby, clothes-conscious teenager, who acquires wings and can fly gracefully onto a clothesline. Max’s preoccupation with string theory is embodied by “awkward and bookish” Albert (as in Einstein), who says things like, “Alphabetic writing began in Egypt around 1800 BC,” and who plays a surprising role in Max’s vivid American-presidents scenario. And bossy, tough-talking Fin is perceived, by Max, as the personification of his mermaid doll, whose siren call entices him to jump into a drainage ditch full of water. Then there’s Homunculus, a neighborhood gardener and spirit guide of sorts, whose leaf blower provides some of the sound effects, and who rescues Max at a crucial moment.
Once the authors had established the play’s basic structure, they realized something else: “The parents had to descend into Max’s autism to come out [the other side] and understand it,” says Carlin. As a result, some of the parents’ dialogue is, as she describes it, excruciatingly repetitive—but that’s important, so that when the release comes—when Max escapes into his inner fantasy world, taking us, the audience, with him—the contrast is visceral, and revelatory. The struggle, while developing the play, was to find the balance between viewpoints—Max’s and his parents’ in particular—while maintaining the delicacy of the piece.
To create what he thinks of as a musical poem reminiscent of his son’s spirit, Rasbury—the real Max’s parent—wanted a blend of synthesizer with repeated sounds of strings, vibraphone, acoustic guitar, piano and harp—“a small but odd orchestra.” He went through banks of sounds, adjusting knobs until he found what he describes as “a little buzz that reminded me of Max,” which he’d add to the stack. He also recorded Max’s “presidents machine” into his keyboard; at seven, Max was memorizing facts about all 40 presidents and played the machine in repeat, driving his parents crazy. “I was becoming one with my own fear of hearing this machine over and over again,” says Rasbury.
“Instead of going to a psychologist, I wrote a play!” he continues. He views “Max Understood” as somewhere between honesty and autobiography, yet fictional. The theatrical Max has some of the same characteristics the real Max had at that age: the flapping hands, anxious vocalizing, fear of getting his hair wet, very particular food preferences (toaster waffles, to be exact), favored songs and phrases, a fixation on Abercrombie models. He was not exactly like the Dustin Hoffman character in “Rain Man,” but similar, according to Rasbury. “I knew the best way to present autism was to inform Nancy about real situations and things my son said,” he adds. “He [quotes lines from] movies and things he’s read verbatim.” (In public high school now and taking film classes, the real Max has perfect pitch, makes movies on YouTube, has excellent recall.)
Ultimately it was an emotional experience for Rasbury to realize that he and Carlin had written his own very private concerns into a work that’s now being shared with the public. “Of course it’s complete fiction, but sometimes too close to home for me,” he confesses. “It’s [also] a diary of how it was when Max was seven, all the stresses on the family, and my hopes and dreams are in there, too.
“I think that’s why anyone writes a play—to master the unknown, things we’re not sure about, live it out on paper. Then you feel closer to it, a little more in command.”
Still, Rasbury wishes he’d called the play something like “Fred Understood”; the real Max, who is aware, intelligent and verbal, takes things literally, and although he appreciates the play, Rasbury thinks he probably has mixed emotions about it.
Says Carlin, “[The play’s] Max still exhibits the exact same behaviors at the end, but we [the writers, the audience, Max’s fictionalized parents] see it in a different way. We’ve changed. We wanted to fix Max, but he fixed us.” Elaborates Rasbury, “At the beginning, everyone is trying to understand Max. But… we need to come to him and take him for who he is.” In fact, he says, you might feel that Max has transformed during the course of the musical—but actually, it is the world around him that has changed.