In the summer of 2010, I started work on what I thought would be an essay about parenting a teen son with special needs. The piece started with me dropping him off at summer school:
In the morning, the bus doors open and the ramps slide down to start the parade of wheelchairs and walkers. Parents with specialized vans carefully ramp their children to ground level, handing off backpacks and medical equipment to staff members.
Then the other students fill the sidewalks. A thin teen boy walking on his toes, clutching a thick phone directory. Children wearing helmets and safety harnesses. A short dark-haired girl with thunder in her throat, taking two steps and a stomp, two steps and a stomp. The runners: darting in between the other students with staff in pursuit. Two clumps of typical-looking teens, divided by gender. And my son — nearly 300 pounds of mostly giddy smiles and noises, a 16-year old with severe autism and an unpredictable temper.
The essay didn’t get too far. At the urging of a colleague, I decided to write a play in which the audience could experience the dizzying sensation familiar to me — the feeling that the world has dropped out from under your feet and you don’t know where (or if) you’re going to land.
Falling opens without words. A young man (Josh) enters the stage and moves around the room, putting toys in a certain order on the floor and arranging the placement of items at a desk. He stands under a shelf which has a cardboard box on top of it with a rope attached that dangles down. Slowly, Josh pulls on the rope and the box tips forward, dumping out feathers. He squeals in joy and laughs as he watches the white feathers fall to the ground.
We don’t have a feather box at our house — I created it so the audience could see how important visual stimulation is for the character Josh (and for many people with autism). The mantra in playwriting is “Show, don’t tell” and the feather box was the first of many theatrical elements that changed this from a story about my family to a play about the Martin family. Josh is 18 years old in the play, which means the parents (Tami and Bill) are trying to figure out where he will live now that he’s an adult. His 16- year-old sister Lisa resents his presence in the house and is worried for the safety of her grandmother, who is arriving for a visit. With a stranger in the house, the routines that keep Josh content start to fall apart, and the family is thrown into crisis.
After my initial draft of the play was done, I spoke with my family — twin children who are two years older than Andy, and my husband. “Even though this play isn’t really about us,” I said, “people are going to assume that it is. So I need to know if you’re okay with me continuing this project.”
They agreed, after thoughtful discussion, to support my writing. And so the process began — I would gather friends to read the play out loud and give me feedback, then go back and rewrite. I lost count of how many iterations the script went through. And it would take another essay (or book) to chronicle the process of casting, workshopping and rehearsing the inaugural production.
My biggest worry was that the story was not going to be interesting to a general audience. Fortunately, the overwhelming response was “thank-you for telling the truth” and “how did you know my story?” — and not just from people who had a loved one with autism. I realized that the show is not just about this specific family; it’s about loving someone who is hard to love. And that’s a nearly universal experience.
After a run in St. Louis and Off-Broadway, Falling is receiving its West Coast premiere at Rogue Machine Theatre. My son Andy is now 19 years old, finishing his last year of high school. Our lives are a little more settled than they were three years ago, but the future for us is still a mystery. Life, like this play, is more about questions than answers.
Falling, Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 Pico Blvd., LA 90019. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Through December 1. Tickets: $30. www.roguemachinetheatre.com. 855-585-5185.
Deanna Jent is the artistic director of Mustard Seed Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri, where she is also a professor of theater at Fontbonne University. Other stage writing includes adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.
**All Falling production photos by John Flynn.