About 20 area school students are spending some of their summer days honing their theater abilities and boosting their appreciation for life skills in Van Buren.

The area children are in grades 3-8 are participating in the Center for Art and Education’s Big Little Theatre summer program, which will be held from 1-5 p.m. weekdays through Aug. 4, said Jessica Fisher, a play director and teaching artist for the program. Students will spend the first week learning about live theater and more at the Center for Art and Education, 104 N. 13th St. in Van Buren, while the second week will be spent putting the finishing touches on the group’s play, “Disney’s The Aristocats Kids,” at the King Opera House, 427 Main St. in Van Buren.

“At the end of the camp, the kids will present the ‘Aristocats’ show at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Aug. 4 at the King Opera House,” Fisher said.

One of the unique aspects of the 30-minute play will be the fact that students will be the creative force, she said.

“I’m directing the play, but it’s all kid-done,” Fisher said. “The kids are doing the sets now at the Center for Art and Education, and they are going to create their own costumes.

“The students basically have four hours a day, for two weeks, to put on a full musical,” she added. “That is a lot of work for two weeks, but it’s exciting. All of the kids will have a part.”

In addition to learning the music for “Disney’s The Aristocats Kids,” the students will learn how to properly sing, as well as learn musical notes, choreography, stage direction, costuming and some scenic design, Fisher said.

“It’s like a musical theatre boot camp,” she said. “We haven’t done anything like this before, although we do a 14-week program in the spring where the students meet twice a week. This is something new.”

Brent Gunnels, who is serving as musical director for the production and is a community relations manager for the Center for Art and Education, also is optimistic that the camp and performances will be a win-win for the students and the community.

“It’s the first time we’ve done a musical theatre camp, and we are excited because it’s going to be fast-paced,” he said. “It’s going to be crazy-fun and we’re going to have a lot of fun teaching the kids about musical theater.

“There will be a lesson every day; one lesson will be about lighting, another lesson will be about props, and one day we’ll talk about how to project your voice to the back of a room,” Gunnels added.

Fisher predicted the students and those who see the performances will find “Disney’s The Aristocats Kids” inspiring.

“It’s a fun story,” she said. “There’s adventure, love and jazz music.”

Tickets for the shows are $10 and can be purchased at the Center for Art and Education and, if available, at the door before each performance, Fisher said.

“This program is a nice way to keep kids active in the summer,” she said. “It gives them self-confidence, and it helps them with speaking skills and communication skills.”

Participating children will gain an appreciation for the concept of time management, Fisher said.

“The students have to learn their lines and the music, and everything has a deadline,” she said. “There’s also teamwork because this is a big ensemble show. They’ll be learning about teamwork and all the skills people need in everyday life.”

Fisher said she hopes the summer theatre program becomes an annual event.

“We are really trying to utilize and bring theatre into the King Opera House and bring theatre education to the youth of Van Buren,” she said. “I teach at the Van Buren High School, and I’m very excited about this program. It’s always fun getting a group together, and I’m excited to meet some new kiddos and show them theatre.”

Gunnels agreed without hesitation.

“We are trying to make this so that every student leaves with an understanding of what it takes to put on a musical,” he said. “I know we have a great group of kids coming in for this program. It should be high-energy and a lot of fun.”