'Falling' accelerates upward journey of Mustard Seed's Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre company founder Deanna Jent doesn’t remember much about her directorial debut. But her four younger siblings can’t forget.
“It’s burned in their memories,” Jent said. “I made them be Mexican jumping beans, and do it over and over and over, and I critiqued their performances and brought people in to see them.”
As Jent grew older, her theatrical aspirations transitioned from directing home-based productions to performing in her Plano, Ill., high school plays, to eventually founding Mustard Seed at Fontbonne University.
Her wildest dreams recently came true when producer Terry Schnuck finalized plans for the Sept. 27 New York City debut of her play “Falling,” about a family with an autistic teenage son.
As the Off-Broadway staging idea simmered for nearly a year, Jent described herself as “waiting impatiently” for the official announcement.
“We did the New York casting about six weeks ago. And they wanted to have everything in place first -- the website, ticketing -- and I’m like, ‘Please, please, please, I just want to tell people!’” Jent said.
Jent’s journey from Plano -- population 10,900 -- to playing in the Big Apple was always an ambitious one. Before entering Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, she had her career path all set.
“I was going to be a musical theater education major and teach high school choir and theater, and direct the musicals and all the plays,” she said.
Along the way, Jent eliminated music studies; and as she neared graduation, an adviser helped her figure out she’d rather teach at the college level. She entered an MA/PhD program at Northwestern, graduating in 1989.
Two years later, she and her husband Steve Jent had twins, a son, Christopher and a daughter, Lindzey. Three years after that, their son Andy was born. When he was 18 months old, the family moved from Buffalo Grove, Ill., to St. Louis for her assistant professor of theater position at Fontbonne and to be near her father and siblings, who’d already moved here. Steve, a teacher and woodworking artist, became the stay-at-home parent.
Soon, they noticed Andy was regressing. At first, they blamed the disruption of the move. During the 10 months they waited for a neurologist’s appointment, they figured out he had autism. It turned out to be severe.
The coming years were filled with teaching Andy how to communicate and perform simple tasks like folding clothes, and figuring how to distract and work around him -- often to avoid a meltdown.
Every family accommodates children. Autism ratchets up this accommodation exponentially. As a young child, Andy couldn’t bear the sound of running water, so the family waited until he was asleep to take showers. Eventually, his ability to tolerate the noise of this everyday activity improved.
His tolerance for other sounds -- like that of a food processor -- emerged more slowly. For a seemingly endless period, such auditory insults often sent him into a rage, a particularly dire situation once Andy entered adolescence, according to Steve Jent.
“He would grab people by the collar of the shirt and throw them around. For a short time, he grabbed people by the hair, and that really hurt,” Steve Jent said.
“Imagine all those hormonal difficulties of a teenager but the mental processing capability of a 2-year-old and the body of a linebacker,” Deanna Jent said. “He would get violent -- it became an every day or every-other-day occurrence -- but then he would feel terrible about it, and then sob and cry.”
While raising her family in Webster Groves and teaching at Fontbonne, Jent for many years enjoyed being a guest director in various local theater companies.
“I liked other people taking care of the details and the money,” Jent said.
But it was difficult to drum up theater companies’ interest for some scripts she was passionate about, and a theme revealed itself.
“They were all about questions of faith and social justice or how those two things work together, in a broad sense,” Jent said.
Such plays are a natural a fit for Fontbonne’s mission. And a campus theater could provide students with on-site professional internships. So Jent summoned a group of theater professionals of different faiths -- Christian, Jewish, Buddhist -- and brainstormed the idea of a professional theater company in Fontbonne’s space.
Serendipitously, a Fontbonne alum called to ask if Jent had any new projects in mind, and offered startup money, In 2007, Mustard Seed Theatre, named for the Bible verse about how faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, was born.
Since then, the company has won eight Kevin Kline awards, including three in 2012: Best Musical Director and Best Director for "Godspell," and Best New Play for "Falling."
Jent calls Mustard Seed a “fun-time job” that dovetails with her full-time job at Fontbonne.
“The more I have to do, the more I get done,” Jent said.
‘Falling’ catches Jent by surprise
During Andy’s adolescence, Jent began writing about what she calls “extreme parenting,” the Herculean efforts of herself and her husband and all mothers and fathers whose children have disabilities.
“I would take Andy to school and see these parents drive up, and they’d take the ramps out and get the IVs ready,” Jent said. “Each one of these parents has this superpower that their kid has brought them.”
Around the same time, Jent experienced a mix of grief and joy as her older son left for college. She wrote about that, too, and showed both pieces to a colleague and friend.
“I said, ‘I have this not-very-good piece of writing here and I have this sort of poem thing, and this stuff wants to be something -- what does it want to be?’’’ Jent said.
He encouraged her to keep writing. She did.
Eventually, “Falling” emerged.
It’s not a play written to educate people about autism, Jent said. It’s about asking questions, loving someone who’s hard to love and trying to get through life.
“At some point along the way you have to surrender to what’s happening, because you can’t fix it,” Jent said.
Steve Jent, who at first wondered why he should see the play when he’d already lived it, was surprised by the emotions it conjured up for him. One of them was empathy for his other children, whose lives were often disrupted by their brother’s volatility.
“I was trained to handle Andy but I didn’t know what to do with the others around him,” Steve Jent said.
The story also resonated with theater-goers. Shows began to sell out and its run was extended. On the very last night, producer Terry Schnuck saw it and expressed an interest in showing it to colleagues in New York.
A few weeks later, Schnuck called Jent back. Preparing to meet him for coffee, she braced for the worst.
“But when we sat down, he said, ‘Do you ever think things happen for a reason?’ And I said, ‘Oh, all the time,’” Jent recalled. “It seems that he’d suddenly had some projects shift and had some open time, and he said, ‘Well, I want to produce your play.’ And that’s when I sort of spit coffee out my nose.”
The big 5-0, redux
Mustard Seed associate artistic director Leslie Wobbe has enjoyed 16 years of drinking coffee and working with Jent, at first as her student, then as her friend.
“She has a great ability to make you feel like you’re the most important person on the planet,” Wobbe said. “About five years ago, she and I had a talk about how she wanted to get closer to people in her life. So I noticed she made weekly lunch or coffee or breakfast dates with people who were important to her.”
“She’s a very caring person,” Steve Jent echoed. “She often puts other people’s happiness ahead of what she’d like to do.”
Last fall, Jent decided to something for herself -- throw a big bash for her 50th birthday.
“I sent out this big invitation to my 50 best, fabulous friends,” Jent said.
But about a week before the big day, her father reminded her that her upcoming birthday would actually be her 49th.
“So, I sent out another invitation to all my friends -- something with my chagrined face on it -- saying, ‘So I can’t do math, come to my party anyway!” Jent said.
Now, with her real 50th birthday just a couple of months away, Jent faces a hectic fall schedule of opening Mustard Seed’s “Going to See the Elephant” Aug. 31 and flying to New York to work on publicity for “Falling.”
With little time to plan another party or to even enjoy her favorite hobbies of napping, cooking vegan dishes and reading fantasy novels with strong female characters, how will she celebrate her Nov. 15 birthday? Likely, by working.
“I don’t know what I’ll do,” Jent said. “But I am opening our next play, ‘Imaginary Jesus,’ that weekend.”