After years of listening to the struggles of families with children with autism, music therapist Tom Sweitzer needed an outlet to educate the public on their journeys.
After five months of work "Puzzle Piece" was born. The 50-minute musical will debut April 7 at the Tally Ho Theatre in Leesburg.
"All together there's nine songs in the show that are kind of organic. So through time, they develop," Sweitzer, who has also taught music theatre for 20 years, said.
Produced by A Place to Be, a facility in Middleburg that works to help people navigate life's challenges through therapeutic arts, "Puzzle Piece" follows the life of Paul and Marie Tate and their son Erik who has autism.
With a cast of five, including Sweitzer playing the role of Paul Tate, the production "is really about a mom and dad who talk about their 16-year-old child."
The child, played by A Place to Be sophomore Kyle Boardman, is seen in the play in three stages of life – at ages 3, 6 and 10.
Boardman, although not autistic, spends up to 10 hours a week working as a buddy at A Place to Be. He said it's been a challenge to play the role of Erik.
"I don't even have the role down 100 percent right now. I'm still trying to find out who this character is and his traits and how he reacts to things and all his aspects," he said. "It's very hard because I'm not autistic and their minds are so hard to understand and we never really know about the brain of an autistic person."
Sweitzer in the musical uses different scenes that a parent of an autistic child would encounter.
"All the songs are monologues. They're word-for-word what I've heard moms and dads talk about," he said.
"You Don't Know Me" was inspired by a conversation Sweitzer had with a mother who went shopping with her autistic child. She faced down stares in the store as people looked at her like something was wrong with her child, he said.
The same scenes play out in a restaurant and at Christmas with the mother's sister, who continues to brag about what a great holiday her child just shared with her family.
But Sweitzer reveals more than just what it's like to be at the end of uncomfortable stares. He delves deep into the expectations every parent has when they're child is first born.
He wrote one scene directly from a meeting with a father who has a child with autism and his dreams and expectations of what his son should be able to do.
"Sometimes the dreams you have set in your head are not really what your child has in store for you," Sweitzer said.
In one of the more powerful scenes, the audience is taken inside a doctor's office where parents are told for the first time that their child has autism.
"We're kind of explaining to him [the father] that [the child] used to be like this, he used to hug, he used to talk. Autism has its own way of coming up in a child,"Sweitzer said.
The music director is hoping his audience will walk away from "Puzzle Piece" with a sense of validation.
"I really believe that this could be educational and instructional. But I want people to come to it because it's truly going to be a great theatre experience," he said.
Sweitzer said he's had parents of autistic children already tell him the production gave them a sense of belonging – that they were not alone in their struggles.
"We can't tell everyone's story but we're trying to give an essence of what it's like to have a child with autism," he said.
Still, Sweitzer also believes parents without autistic children can benefit from seeing the production to gain an understanding and empathy for those who do.
"Especially for teachers and caregivers. If you have a child in your life that you love I think this show could be very inspiring to you, " he said.
If you go:
"Puzzle Piece" debuts at 3 p.m. April 7 at the Tally Ho Theatre, 19 W. Market St., Leesburg. For tickets or more information call 540-687-6740 or http://www.aplacetobe.org
A sec.ond performance will be held at 2 p.m. April 14 at Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville.