New York City professional actor Rudy Caporaso was rehearsing lines with Wildwood Middle School seventh-grader Michael Bautista Ortega a week before the school's big performance.

"Before I became a knight, I was an apprentice … um," said Michael, stumbling on his lines.

"Before I became a knight, I was a man of peace and an apprentice," Caporaso corrected.

"Oh, right, before I became a knight I was a man of peace and an apprentice." Michael repeated.

"You have to circle all these lines with a big red pencil," said Caporaso, as he pointed to Michael's script. "All right?"

"I'm trying," Michael said, discouraged.

"I know. I know you're trying hard, and you'll look at them again tonight and you'll get them. You will, " Caporaso said. "Let's keep going. You're doing great."

Michael is one of about 75 Wildwood Middle School students, in fifth- through seventh-grade, involved in the district's After-School Program. The program, made possible by $1.5 million, five-year federal 21st Century Learning Centers grant, was designed to keep Wildwood's middle-school students safe and having fun after school. Students who sign up for the program stay at school for three hours each weekday and are exposed to cultural and arts opportunities, such as theater, cooking and steel drums courses.

The program also sets aside time for homework and includes a free, hot dinner. Wildwood is one of only nine districts in the state to receive the $1.5 million grant.

Several of the district's teachers volunteer their time and talents to offer the different after-school activities, but for the theater component, the district has paired up with the East Lynne Theater Company, a professional equity theater based in Cape May. East Lynne's artists-in-residence, Caporaso, Sally Bingham and Grace Wright, have been meeting with the students several days each week since October.

On March 20, the students will perform their first short play, which is free and open to the public, in the Wildwood High School auditorium.

"We started with learning basic theater skills, which are actually life skills, such as acting skills, creativity skills, thinking on your feet," Bingham said. "All that was to prepare them for this phase, which is that these guys have written and are now going to perform their own play."

The performance is based on a fairy tale and is set in the Middle Ages, with knights and princesses, she said.

"Michael's (Bautista Ortega's) character actually drove the plot, because he is a knight who doesn't have knight-like qualities," Bingham said. "He is very reserved, very shy, very peace-loving. So the whole plot of the play revolves around the knight who didn't want to fight. Michael was perfect for this role, because he has a nice, natural quality about him, but he also has a lot of pressure on him because it's such a big role."

Michael, who admits theater isn't his first-choice activity, said he has learned a lot about theater in the past few months.

"I've learned a lot of different acting skills and how to perform as a character," he said.

Sixth-grader Janaie Walker, who will perform the role of a princess in the play, said this is her first time acting on stage, but she's confident she'll do well. With each rehearsal, she gets a little bit better.

"She knew all her lines this time," said fellow sixth-grader and princess Makayla Butler. "We're going to be awesome. I'm happy. My mom is coming to watch and my aunt is coming."

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If you go

What: Wildwood Middle School and ELTC presents a student-led theatrical performance

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 20

Where: Wildwood High School, 4300 Pacific Ave., Wildwood

Cost: Free