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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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