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Though Brian Bohlander may feel more at home onstage at Hancock College's Marian Theatre, the first-year acting student was able to keep his composure in front of one of his toughest audiences yet: kindergartners.

Seated in Dee Dee Garrigues' Dunlap Elementary classroom, Bohlander attempted to voice a convincing mouse and stubborn bear during a reading of "There's a Bear on My Chair," Ross Collins' illustrated children's book. 

"Children are the best audience," said Bohlander, one of roughly 57 PCPA acting students who spent Thursday reading books to children in schools in Santa Maria, Lompoc and Los Alamos. "Kids are very honest. If it's not working, they won't lie to you — you'll be able to see if your words don't land."

Reading the books as part of PCPA Reads, a literary outreach program developed by resident artist Kitty Balay, children got a vibrant, up-close and personal experience with books, while acting students had an opportunity to develop their voice skills.

Balay said she hopes the program will demonstrate the adventure of reading to children by showing them how a book can come to life.

"Just like theater, reading can open up new worlds and windows into different lives," she said. "It encourages curiosity and empathy — oh, and by the way, it’s fun!"

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Ella Walker, a second-year acting student, chose to read Libba Moore Gray's "My Momma Had a Dancing Heart," which combines her background as a dancer with her current passion of stage acting. The book, she explained, was given to her by her grandparents and read to her by her mother when she was a child.

"[Balay] is trying to teach us how to make words come alive with just our voices," Walker said. "It's pretty wordy ... and very poetic. I had to match my vocal choices to the illustrations."

With Bohlander's book leaning more toward illustrations, creating somewhat of a challenge, voices and sound effects allowed him to share the story in nonverbal fashion.

"It's about telling the story with your voice and creating a world throughout the book with just the words or pictures you're given," he said.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga