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Max Understood
by NANCY CARLIN and MICHAEL RASBURY

Max Understood
Dad (Michael Winther) and Max (Marlon Shermon)

 

ROLE
DATE


COMPANY


CITY


DIRECTOR


ATTENDANCE
PERFORMANCES

 

AUTHOR, SOUND DESIGNER, COMPOSER
SEPTEMBER, 2009
JULY, 2008
NOVEMBER, 2007
NEW YORK MUSIC THEATER FESTIVAL,
THE EUGENE O'NEILL CENTER
& FOOTHILL THEATRE COMPANY
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK,
WATERFORD, CONNECTICUT
& GRASS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
DAVID SCHWEIZER (NYMF)
JACK CUMMINGS III
(O'NEILL)
NANCY CARLIN (FOOTHILL THEATRE)
1600 (TOTAL)
20

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Overview  
Max Understood  
This play reveals an ordinary day in the life of a young boy with autism as an unusual journey. Max Understood takes the audience on a surprising and sometimes disorienting expedition around his apartment complex. Max escapes the apartment that he shares with his caring but overwhelmed parents and encounters his neighbors in unexpected ways. This surreal musical for seven actors is created with sound design as an integral element to the script. Music in Max Understood contains melodies motivated by machines and dreams.

As composer and coauthor, it was my goal to explore the preconceived notions we make about people. As a father of a child with autism, I have learned that outward behaviors can be deceiving. In Max Understood, characters live inner dreams that seem opposite to their appearance and outer actions. For instance, Peg, a fashionable, heavy-set preteen girl reveals herself to Max as a feather-light Pegasus. Albert, a nerdy, fact-spouting bookworm transforms into a “gangsta” rapper. At the end of his journey, Max meets Fin, who is also a mermaid. The piece is not a total fantasy; the beginning of the play shows Max’s parents struggling to deal with him and their expectations for him. The work mirrors the ultra-realistic, daily processes of communicating with Max and getting him dressed with the surrealistic representation of his ability to imagine and dream.

In September 2009, Max Understood was produced at the 2009 New York Music Theater Festival in New York City. During July of 2008, the Eugene O’Neill National Music Theatre Conference in Waterford, Connecticut presented a staged reading directed by Jack Cummings. In November of 2007, a staged reading directed by Nancy Carlin was presented by the Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City, California, as part of their New Voices of the West program. This experience is one of the most rewarding experiences for me because it is rare that the sound designer also serves as a creator of the total work.

It is important to note that the examples below are rough estimations of what the final material will sound like, as this piece is still under development.
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Design Drawings
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ground plan   cue list   ground plan   ground plan   ground plan
Current Script   Current Sound Cue List   Synopsis   Character List   History of Max Understood
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Sounds
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TRACK 1 NOISE SYMPHONY
When Max Understood begins, we see Max standing alone in a dark space. Then, we see him react to being overwhelmed by a barrage of common environmental sounds. No dialogue occurs during this scene; rather, we see his physical reactions and hear vocalizations. Click here for a video.

TRACK 2 MEET MAX AND MACHINE Look Inside the Sound(click the note to view sheet music)
Max picks up his president machine toy and begins pressing buttons in a curious way. The song that follows is an attempt to capture the spirit of Max in music. The piece is repetitive and presents a metaphor for math. In order to control the sound of the president machine, most of its noises were recorded and then assigned to unique keys on a MIDI keyboard using sampling software. Click here to view a movie of this song with lyrics.

TRACK 3 NEGATIVITY Look Inside the Sound
Mom and Dad lash out at the world and all of its inherent problems as a way to deal with the situation. The television lashes back. Click here to view a movie of this song with lyrics.

TRACK 4 WHY CAN'T I BE NORMAL UNDERSCORE Look Inside the Sound
Built on the vocal rhythm of the text "why can't I be normal," this piece accompanies moments in the play when Mom and Dad deal with their own ability to be "normal."

TRACK 5 RIBBON Look Inside the Sound
Mom sings a duet with the washing machine. Listen to a description of the creative process for this piece. Click here to view a movie of this song with lyrics.

TRACK 6 KIDS AND CARS Look Inside the Sound
During a moment of inattention, Max sneaks out of the apartment and is confronted by neighborhood children. They are dangerously close to the road and accidentally chase Max into traffic. Click here to view a movie of this song with lyrics.

TRACK 7 SHAPE YOUR WORLD Look Inside the Sound
Enter Munc, the leaf blowing and yard-keeping philosopher. He recognizes something in Max and attempts to pull it out of him.

TRACK 8 DREAM Look Inside the Sound
Peg is a heavy-set girl who has a secret wish to be light enough to fly. Although she is one of the kids who chased Max into the street, he now sees her as Pegasus.

TRACK 9 REACHING Look Inside the Sound
Mom and Dad are searching for a way to break through to Max. The environmental noises "sing" in rhythm to the music. A beautiful chord represents an epiphany.

TRACK 10 RUSHED UP
Max meets Albert, the fact spouting kid, who also turns out to be a rapper. Kevin Turner performs the rap for this piece and coauthored some of the lyrics.

TRACK 11 WHY CAN'T I BE NORMAL UNDERSCORE (REPRISE) Look Inside the Sound
Same as description for song 4, above.

TRACK 12 HIS NAME IS MAX Look Inside the Sound
In this piece, Dad reflects on simple facts about his son, Max. During the second verse, the sound of the President Machine begins to call to him, and Dad has an autistic experience.

TRACK 13 PRESS A BUTTON Look Inside the Sound
Dad is overcome by Max's world.

TRACK 14 CLOUD Look Inside the Sound
Munc reads (sings) a Wordsworth poem to Max. Max understands.

TRACK 15 POWERFUL POWERLINES Look Inside the Sound
Mom is overcome by Max's world, and defeats her fears at the end of the song. After the bell ending this song, she exclaims, "Powerful power lines are like dogs!"

TRACK 16 GET CLEAR & CASIO POETRYLook Inside the Sound

During this song, Mom and Dad completely “break” through into Max’s world. Click here to view a movie of this song with lyrics. The end of the piece is engineered to sound like Max's toy keyboard.

TRACK 17 POETRY + THE WATER Look Inside the Sound
Max is reintroduced to Fin, one of the kids who chased him into the street, but now she is a very beautiful mermaid. Munc has taught Max how to express himself by this point, and he suddenly serenades her.

TRACK 18 THIS IS NORMAL Look Inside the Sound
Mom and Dad adopt a new definition of what is "normal." Then Max "turns off" the play.

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Production Photos  
photo photo photo photo photo
Dad and Max
in NYMF
production
The NYMF cast
performing "Rushed
Up"

The neighborhood kids taunt Max The cast of Max Understood at the O'Neill Director Jack Cummings and Matthew Gumley (Max)
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Reviews

 
"One song, which consists of only the words "This Is Normal" repeated over and over, is one of the year's most gorgeous and heartrending"
-Talkin' Broadway
"The first scene, in which Max wakes up in the morning, literally shaking with fear and delight and at the myriad sounds that are filling his ears was itself a triumph,."
-Broadway Stars
Click to Read
"Outstanding New Musical"
-Talkin' Broadway 2009 Summer Theatre Festival Citations
"Consistently fascinating."
-TheatreMania
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"Music is fascinating and complicated... quite unlike anything I've heard..."
-Broadway World
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"I was pleased to find deeper layers than base cliches [about autism]"
-New York Theatre
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"The lyrics are simple and poetic; the book is impressive in its surreality."
-Live Journal

Click to Read
"There's no opening "number," exactly, in Nancy Carlin and Michael Rasbury's odd, intermittently transfixing not-quite-musical Max Understood, but there's an opening, all right, and it's a memorable one."
-American Theatre
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"I honestly don't remember being this moved and affected by a first viewing of a show in a long time."
-Anonymous Review from a Broadway Chat Group
Other Press
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