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Understanding Max: Artists-in-Residence Put Musical on Autism Under Microscope

In the creative arena of drama, “workshopping” – the process of helping a playwright revise a play by rehearsing it with performers and critiquing the results ­– can be a rewarding experience.

That was certainly the case last month when Michael Rasbury, an associate professor in sound design at the University of Virginia, and his class worked with artists-in-residence Nancy Carlin, a playwright and acting teacher, and Charles Otte, an associate professor of integrated media for live performance at the University of Texas in Austin.

For most of September, 20 participants, – primarily U.Va. students, joined by some drawn from the Charlottesville community – joined with professional artists in reshaping a dramatic work.

The goal was to workshop the musical “Max Understood,” co-written by Carlin and Rasbury, a drama department faculty member in the College of Arts & Sciences. The play explores what the world sounds like to an autistic 7-year-old boy. Inspired by Rasbury’s son, Max, who has autism, the musical involves seven actors, and was created with sound design that’s integral to the music and script.

The resident artists both have long resumes that applied directly to the production. Besides being the play’s co-author, Carlin is an award-winning actor, director, writer, producer, playwright, vocal coach and acting teacher based in San Francisco. Otte is a creative director with more than 20 years of experience creating award-winning content for theater, attractions, special events and multi-media venues, and is currently developing programs in integrated media at the University of Texas in Austin.

Rasbury met Carlin at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in 2006, and they soon began collaborating on writing the musical and composing the original score, inspired by Max’s daily struggle with autism – as well as the challenges that his parents and other parents with autistic children face daily.

Originally it was Carlin’s suggestion to write the play with Rasbury as she got to know him, his wife and Max. When Rasbury would talk about his son to her, he would use the expression “Max understood,” which clicked with Carlin.

The original musical premiered in 2009 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, billed as “the Sundance Festival of new musicals.” Over time, through the workshopping process, the playwrights sought to develop “Max Understood” to showcase it as a full production somewhere in a regional theater – “which may well happen in the not-too-distant future in the Bay area,” Carlin said.

Tom Bloom, who chairs the drama department, discussed with Rasbury the idea of developing a workshop class around the musical to offer students a chance to provide other points of view – and to help take the musical to another level of performance.

“The workshop class was under Michael’s auspices, but I also teach a lot, so in preparation, we talked about the syllabus, the student mix and custom-tailoring the class,” Otte said. “We wanted to take an approach that was really holistic and establish an interdisciplinary class so that designers are singing and singers are in design meetings.”

Carlin added, “We all love collaborating and having group feedback, so Charlie, Michael and I were comfortable in this setting. A playwright doesn’t always want to hear everyone’s suggestions as to how to write something, but I was at such a comfortable place with the piece that I was open to hearing the students’ natural reactions.”

“Although my name’s on the class, Charlie essentially led it, which allowed me to concentrate on writing the play with Nancy,” Rasbury said. “At the end of the month of being together, one of my favorite parts about the classroom experience has been watching students work outside of their own personal box.”

One of the major conflicts in “Max Understood” appears when the parents, in a moment of inattention, lose their son.

Basically, Max packs a bag and walks out. As he embarks on an odyssey beyond the confines of his parents’ apartment, his unique perspective reveals the beauty and mystery of the world around him.

While the students worked on the play in class, the real Max hung out in his father’s office or played on his computer, and Rasbury would check on him occasionally. “I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that that theme in the play is often very real in my mind,” Rasbury said. “At some point, my Max could go out the back door and go somewhere – although I know he wouldn’t.”

Sometimes the real Max, wearing headphones, would be in the classroom during discussions of “Max Understood.”

“I think it was a good thing for the students involved in the workshop to sometimes see Max,” Rasbury said.

With Carlin and Otte’s guidance, workshop participants identified scenes and characters they felt required more clarity. The workshop also resulted in many script changes, a new scene, a new song, the editing of other songs and the identification of sections where songs could possibly be added in future performances.

An undergraduate computer science student, Samuel Knox, even designed a “Max Understood” app, with encouragement from Otte and Rasbury. “The holy grail of so many theater performances these days is to figure out a way to make it interactive, so this was really cool,” Otte said.

“Through the workshopping process, ‘Max Understood’ got closer and closer to what it would be like when it’s produced next time in a major way,” Carlin said. “When you get into this process, you really are forced to take a good look at things and make fixes.”

Workshop performances of “Max Understood” were held Sept. 22 and 23 in the Helms Theatre.

Their residency was supported through the Arts Enhancement Fund, established to increase the visibility and influence of the arts at the University – and to engage professional artists, like Carlin and Otte, who will enrich the experience of students.

During their monthlong residency, Carlin and Otte spoke to other drama classes, including directing, dance and design classes – and even the Virginia Players, the student wing of the drama department responsible for hosting drama events.

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