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Longtime theater supporter dies
Dibben pushed for social change
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When the Gainesville Theatre Alliance production of “Ragtime” opened in 2002, theatergoers were greeted in the lobby by student projects honoring local leaders.

Area high schools were challenged to find a leader, past or present, from their community, research that person and prepare displays for attendees of the season-opening show.

And the idea to integrate the subplot of a theatrical performance with a curriculum across multiple schools was the brainchild of Francine Dibben, longtime business manager and, most recently, the associate managing director of Gainesville Theatre Alliance. Dibben died Monday after a battle with cancer. She was 60.

Dibben is survived by her husband of 34 years, Jim, of Clermont and daughters Melissa and Andrea of Atlanta.

For two decades, Dibben worked not only to bring quality theater to North Georgia, but was an advocate for the arts who found ways to blend community activism with performances. In the case of “Ragtime,” which mixed real-life leaders with issues of fair labor practices, immigration and racism, Dibben thought that concept could be applied as a lesson plan, too.

“So as audience members came in to see ‘Ragtime,’ they were walking through all these wonderful displays created by high schoolers honoring men and women of Northeast Georgia,” said Jim Hammond, artistic and managing director for the Gainesville Theatre Alliance, of the Local Heroes project.

During her tenure with GTA — starting in 1986 with Ed Cabell, who founded the program, and until her health forced her to retire a couple years ago — Dibben worked to connect the community with theater in unconventional ways.

Another project blended “West Side Story” — a tale of kids and rival gangs — with local community agencies working to stop gang activity locally. During intermission, audience members walked into the lobby of the theater to see booths set up offering different ways to help out in the community.

Dibben served for many years as community liaison for Theatre Wings volunteers and spearheaded GTA’s audio-description program. With her colleague Margarita Muñoz, Dibben helped nurture a Spanish-language theater in Hall County, according to longtime friend Robin Hale.

She also was known to friends as an avid cook, gardener and bird watcher.

And while working full time, married and raising her daughters, Dibben commuted to Athens to get her master’s degree. She later began teaching a course at Gainesville State College that continued her vision: Theater for Social Change.

Gainesville Theatre Alliance is “celebrating our 30th anniversary; she was there for 22 years,” Hammond said.

“She has had a significant impact on not only the success of the organization but the focus of the Gainesville Theatre Alliance; and just such a kind and nurturing woman.

“In large part, our organization is viewed as a family by a lot of people, and in large part because of her contribution.”

A memorial is planned for 4-6 p.m. Nov. 20 at Gainesville State College in Oakwood. A scholarship fund at Gainesville State College has been set up in her memory, or memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge at Emory University.
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