Onstage, an autistic student finds his voice

GULFPORT — In the dark high school theater, the leading actor sat alone in the front row. Tapping his left loafer. Drumming his long fingers on the battered leather briefcase in his lap.

All the other students were backstage taking a break.

But Corey Kramer was deep inside his own mind.

"Corey?" called the drama teacher. "You ready, Corey?"

Corey didn't answer. He was focused on becoming George.

Being someone else is much easier than being himself.

• • •

Corey, 18, is tall and lanky, with thick black hair and navy blue eyes. His autism makes him awkward and fidgety. He's always pacing, rubbing his hands, touching his face.

Except onstage.

He's a senior at Boca Ciega High School, and at a district competition in December he was named the best high school actor in the area.

He was at dress rehearsal this week, gearing up for the state thespian festival.

Today, he and thousands of other Florida high school students will perform at the Tampa Convention Center, the Straz Center and Tampa Theater — vying for ratings and scholarships.

This, he said, is the biggest role of his life.

In The Actor's Nightmare, Corey plays George Spelvin: a confused young man who wanders onto a stage and discovers he is supposed to be the star. But he doesn't know what play he is in. Doesn't know who he is supposed to be.

The character, Corey said, "is a lot like me."

• • •

"All right, Corey, you're on in 10," drama teacher Lisa Dunlop called Wednesday afternoon. Low jazz floated through the theater. A white circle of light spilled onto center stage.

"Corey," the teacher called. "Corey!"

The leading man didn't move.

He stared straight ahead, feet flat on the ground, hands immobile on the battered briefcase.

He wasn't Corey anymore.

"Go for it!" the teacher called. "Go be George."

Corey stood up suddenly, strode across the carpet and climbed the six stairs to the stage. "Oh, I'm sorry," he told the audience, straight off the script.

"I don't know how I got in here."

• • •

Corey was a happy baby, said his mom, Joy. Always babbling about something.

But at 18 months, he changed. He wouldn't look at anyone. Wouldn't play with his older sister. He stopped babbling. Started spinning in circles over and over.

When he turned 2, a specialist finally said: autism.

"All I could think about," Joy said, "was Rain Man."

He still wasn't speaking at 6. He would get so frustrated, his mom said, when he couldn't tell her what he wanted.

"He was always biting my arms."

Her only hope was simply that he would be happy. She didn't dare dream of anything more.

In second grade, Corey started talking. A few words at a time. Five years later, his teacher at Walden School in Gulfport told her class they were going to put on a play. Every student would get a part. Everyone would have to learn lines and take the stage.

Corey was excited. He was going to play the Italian restaurant owner in Death by Dessert. His mom couldn't believe he wanted to perform in front of all those people.

Pasting on that big black moustache, strutting onto the stage and making people laugh, "that was the best I ever felt," Corey said.

Finally, he didn't have to worry about fidgeting or touching his face or figuring out what to say. Every movement, every line was scripted. He just had to do what the script and his teacher told him to do.

• • •

In the dark high school theater last week, the leading actor stood on stage alone. He was wearing a velvet tunic, black socks and white boxers sprinkled with shamrocks. He paced, shook his fists, nailed the soliloquy.

"Excellent!" the drama teacher kept calling. "Great body language!"

He has stooped as Scrooge in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, tottered in heels in Leading Ladies, ranted as Felix in The Odd Couple.

Every role he plays, his teacher and classmates said, he steals the show. And no one ever knows he is autistic.

Unless they approach him offstage.

If too many people surround him, he gets overwhelmed. He stammers, averts his eyes. Paces and withdraws.

In the real world, the one without directors and scripts, Corey — how else to say it? — isn't sure how to act.

"He is taking AP classes, making all As and Bs, spending every afternoon here doing drama," said Dunlop, who has taught Corey for four years. "I worry about him doing too much.

"But I never worry about him while he's onstage."

Corey doesn't try to lose himself like other actors, she said. Instead, in each new role, he seems to find another piece of who he was meant to be.

"Acting has given him so much confidence. He has really come out of his shell, come so much further than anyone could have ever imagined," said his mom, who still cries at every show. "It's given him friends, a place in the world, an identity."

"Everybody knows Corey," said his younger sister, Janelle, who is in the drama club with him. "But he's not 'that autistic kid' anymore. Now it's like, 'That's Corey, you know, the actor.' "

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

.FAST FACTS

About the Thespian Festival

The 22nd annual Florida State Thespian Festival concludes today in Tampa. Since Thursday, more than 6,000 students from 267 high schools have performed at the Tampa Convention Center, the Straz Center and Tampa Theater. Students are competing for ratings and college scholarships, in individual and group acts. The performances are not open to the public.

Onstage, an autistic student finds his voice 03/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 10:28pm]

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