When it came time to begin high school, Ben Craven faced challenges that are common to teens with autism. He had a few quirks that could sometimes be misunderstood by peers, and conversations could be difficult to navigate.
But a decision to pursue theater his sophomore year altered the script. Now the J.H. Rose High School senior has written a play that he hopes will change the way people view those with autism.
“Time Twister,” which Ben wrote during the summer for his senior project, is being staged Friday along with “How to Succeed in High School Without Really Trying” by Jonathan Rand.
“We talk as teachers about inclusiveness all the time, but how often do we put it out there in performance form?” Jackie Golebiowski, Rose theater arts instructor, asked. “It was one of those things that he had a story to tell, and it wasn’t just a play, but it was a play with a message.”
“Time Twister” is the story of a group of teens with autism who are bullied at school. Ben stars as Erick Thomson, a student whose social anxiety is heightened by problems at home. He and his friends find refuge in the school’s struggling music program and rally to save it using their “super powers.”
It was during auditions for Rampant Theatrical Company’s “Legally Blonde” that Golebiowski and technical director Cristina Borisoff discovered how some of Ben’s gifts were perfectly suited to theater.
“He had the entire script memorized in three days,” Borisoff said. “It was unbelievable.”
Kay Craven had known for some time that the son she and her husband, Brack, had adopted when the boy was 10 months old possessed some special abilities. Although Ben’s language skills had been somewhat slow to develop, his mother found that he was able to recite the children’s book “The Polar Express” at age 2.
But at theater auditions in 2018, Ben’s memory was not the only thing that made him stand out.
“When he opened his mouth to sing, everybody’s jaws dropped,” Golebiowski said.
Ben, who plays trumpet in the school band, had perfect pitch. Almost no one was as surprised as his mother to learn that Ben had a gift for singing.
“He didn’t sing in the choir at church. ... I had never heard him sing ever, not in the shower, not in the car, not to the radio,” Kay said, laughing. “He can sing quite well, it turns out.”
Ben went on to join the Greenville Choral Society’s Youth Chorale. But even more important than the musical harmony was the camaraderie he found with fellow cast members at Rose.
“I managed to meet a lot of friends,” Ben said. “... The people there were so kind to me.”
While talking with peers sometimes presented a challenge for Ben, having a script in his hand seemed to put him at ease.
“Sometimes he struggles one on one with people in conversations or in small groups,” Kay said. “But you put him on stage … that’s when he blossoms. That’s the opposite of most people.”
Ben not only learned his role in “Legally Blonde,” he also memorized other characters’ lines and would cue fellow cast members if they stumbled over them in rehearsals.
“Other kids just loved it,” Golebiowski said. “They just embraced him.”
That is one reason that when Rose announced plans to perform “Time Twister,” Ben wanted to make the event a fundraiser for the Rampant Theatrical Company, which is planning a trip to Europe next summer that will include workshops at the Globe Theatre in London. With the help of his parents, Ben was able to expand the event to include a silent auction featuring more than 60 items, many of them original works of art.
“Theater has given me a place to call home, and they accepted me for who I was,” Ben said. “Doing this play and earning money through my play, this will be my way of saying thank you and giving back to them.”
When his fellow theater students found out that the school planned to perform a play Ben had written, they were quick to join the effort. “Time Twister” features a cast of about a dozen members.
Among them is Rose junior Cole Perry, who has taken theater classes but never pursued a stage role until now. Cole, whose brother has autism, will portray Beethoven in “Time Twister.”
“I feel like a lot of people don’t understand what autism is or what it means,” Cole said. “I hope and wish that this play will explain it to them or at least help them understand.”
East Carolina University student intern, Eden Fox, who will direct “Time Twister,” said she was impressed that the school would produce a student-written work.
“Not a lot of high school theater programs would take this and run with this the way they have,” Fox said. “A lot of times with high school theater programs everything needs to be big and showy because they’re trying to sell as many tickets as possible.
“But this really is not about a theater company,” she said. “It’s about Ben’s dream, which is really special. I think that’s why it means so much to everybody.”
Friday’s event also will serve to promote autism awareness, with displays outside the auditorium providing information on the developmental disorder. Students from The Autism Society of North Carolina, the TEACCH autism program and Aces for Autism have been invited to attend the opening, which will include a sensory room where students with autism can relax and relieve stress and anxiety.
“It’s just incredible to see people from all sorts of places coming to this and supporting this play. It’s honestly meant so much to me,” Ben said.
“This will help give them a better idea of what autism is and that people will learn to accept people who have autism and help their abilities grow,” he said. “... No matter where they are on the spectrum, they have these unique gifts and talents that when nurtured, they could be something that’s drastically incredible and beneficial to the world.”