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Mustard Seed Theatre's 'Falling' was first slotted for a 10-day run at Fontbonne Theatre.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 13, 2011 - Mustard Seed Theatre's "Falling" was first slotted for a 10-day run at Fontbonne Theatre. But something happened. Audiences fell for it -- big time.

Among them was producer Terry Schnuck, who saw "Falling" during the first of two extended-run weekends. Now, Schnuck is preparing to take the play to New York for an off-Broadway production in 2012.

The story of a family with a severely autistic teenage son comes from the heart -- the heart of playwright Deanna Jent, a Fontbonne University theater professor and Mustard Seed's artistic director. Jent has a 17-year-old son with profound autism.

That authenticity shone through for Schnuck, who found the play's universal theme to be "incredibly moving and thought provoking" with an important "wow factor."

"Falling' causes all of us to reflect on how we each deal with the challenges of relationships," Schnuck said. "You could put yourself in the place of the some of the characters and imagine yourself dealing with a loved one who has depression or alcoholism or any type of difficulty."

Currently, Schnuck is producing a new musical version of "Bonnie and Clyde." His career in New York theater has included Tony Award-winning plays "Hair" and "Spring Awakening." But this show -- the first St. Louis play he's ever taken to New York -- has particular meaning.

"I love being able to merge my St. Louis life into my New York life. I'll have a special joy out of taking a play I saw in St. Louis, written by a St. Louis writer, to New York," Schnuck said.

'Falling' Falls into Place

When Jent started writing, she was actually putting down thoughts for a non-fiction essay to help her figure out issues in her own family.

"That's how I process and think -- by writing things down," Jent said.

When friends encourage her to turn her words into a play, she at first balked.

"I said, 'I can't write this as a play; I don't know how it would end'," she said. "For me it was like, this is just my life. But then I started thinking about it in theatrical terms and it was like, 'OK, this isn't just me anymore'."

During the run of the play, post-show discussions hinted that bigger things might be on the horizon.  "People would say, 'Where is this going next? This should be in New York'," Jent said.

"I joked with the audience that I didn't know anyone who produces shows in New York. Then I realized, 'Wait, Terry Schnuck is in town'."

Jent invited him to the show, but Schnuck had only one day he could go -- a Sunday -- and he normally "doesn't see a play on a Sunday, especially when it's a nice day." But his wife happened to be out of town so he went.

"It's one of these things where I almost ask myself, 'Was this meant to be?' Things kind of fell into place, and saw it and I fell in love with it," Schnuck said.

From St. Louis to New York

Schnuck's next steps include getting possible producing partners, raising money, securing a theater and publicizing the show.

"When people ask me, 'What is it a producer does?' I liken it to starting up a new business because you have to put all the pieces together: you have to hire an attorney, and I'm talking to a general manager who will handle the day-to-day and contractual work and handle the payroll -- all that stuff," Schnuck said.

And what about possibilities beyond off-Broadway? If "Falling" can make it there, can it make it anywhere?

"My intention is to take it to off-Broadway and we'll see how it does there. Then, if we pack 'em in and there's really a lot of buzz about it, well, I'm not going to say where it will go," Schnuck said. "But I will say this: I definitely think the piece will play all around the country in regional and community theaters."

Learning 'You're Not Alone'

Jent is excited that more and more people will be able to see her play. This fall, as show after show sold out in St. Louis, play-goers who have family members with autism thanked her for her work.

"They came up and said, 'No one ever told my story truthfully before.' That's the power of theater -- you learn you're not alone," Jent said.

While the story was inspired by Jent's family -- she has twin 20-year-olds, a boy and a girl, as well as her younger son -- it also springs from other families' stories and from the playwriting process of "What if this happened?"

"The play is true but not everything that's in the play happened exactly like this in my house," Jent said.  Jent is looking forward to spending time in New York once the business of the play starts rolling and the artistic process begins. She'll have input into the choice of director and will act as an adviser during rehearsals. She's "beyond thrilled" as she anticipates viewing on a New York stage what she once saw as her personal meanderings.

"It's terrifying and exciting at the same time," Jent said.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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