Walking in neat lines, 110 third and fourth graders filed into the auditorium of St. Francis de Sales Catholic elementary school in West Philadelphia on Friday and took their seats.

"Is anyone feeling nervous today?" visiting artist Brandi Burgess asked the assembled students.

Hands shot into the air.

"Me, too," Burgess said. "But I just want to tell you, this is not a show. . . . This is just showing off what you've done, what you've learned."

And the room of quiet children in ties and plaid jumpers was transformed into a band of young troupers eager to display the acting chops they had developed in their weekly drama classes with Burgess.

Thanks to a $10,000 grant from an anonymous benefactor, the youngsters at St. Francis are getting a taste of theater this academic year through the visiting artist program of the Wolf Performing Arts Center (Wolf PAC) in Bryn Mawr.

The goals also include bolstering children's self-expression and developing public speaking skills.

The nonprofit center for children, which offers workshops and classes, has sent visiting artists to public, private, and religious schools in the suburbs. St. Francis is the first inner-city school Wolf PAC has worked with.

As part of the yearlong program, the school's seventh and eighth graders got the opportunity to see other student actors when they took in Wolf PAC's opening night of Little Women at Rosemont College on Dec. 10.

On Friday, the third and fourth graders belted out a vocal warm-up chant, and sang and pantomimed through a diction exercise, "All I Want Is a Proper Cup of Coffee."

They loosened their limbs by making the appropriate shapes as Burgess called out string bean, jumping bean, chili bean, and jelly bean.

They read a few original poems. They also assumed the poses of characters they had created for the dramatic scenes their small groups had developed to explore the theme of community.

The topic is especially relevant at St. Francis, a mini-United Nations, where the families of the 500 students come from 42 countries.

Sister Mary McNulty, the principal, said the theater program's focus on listening and speaking has improved communication skills, and helped children learn to read expressions and pick up emotional cues.

"Then there's just the fun of it," she said. "Acting things out, striking poses. They absolutely love it."

Fourth grader Janildna Miranda, 10, agreed.

"It was really fun to learn," she said.

"I like how we all work together as a team," added classmate Mason Smith, also 10. "It's all fun and games."

In the spring, students will create and perform plays that incorporate historical figures they will be studying in social studies.

Fourth-grade teacher Amber English said the lessons with Burgess have been a weekly high point and have given students a different type of experience.

"It felt like a controlled environment," she said. "There are rules, but it wasn't like being in the classroom. It was flexible. They could get out of their seats.

"They're also working with each other, and that's a big skill we work on in third and fourth grade - working with everybody and not just certain people."

Through the drama sessions with Burgess, English said, the children were "learning their skills and not realizing they were learning, which is one of the cool parts."

Bobbi Wolf, the center's founding executive director, and Betsy Regn, who oversees the visiting artist program, had front-row seats Friday.

"It just feels so good to take this positive power of theater and share it, and to see these children not just respect each other and respect Brandi but respect what theater does, what performing does," Wolf said.

Regn added: "What stuck out for me was that these kids didn't sign up for this. This is not a club. Every single child was asked to do something that maybe wasn't in their comfort zone, and they all did."

Maybe, she said, the program "will inspire them to do drama, to be more involved in creative thinking."


215-854-2789 @marwooda