Classic Children's Theater

A local stage serves as a creative outlet for kids

At Franklin Theatre Works, the best plays start with a good book. This theater company is comprised of students, but don't expect to see High School Musical performed. The young actors of Franklin Theatre Works get their inspiration from literary classics. Last season's productions included O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl, Margery Williams's The Velveteen Rabbit, Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. The company's most recent production was the musical Oliver! based on the novel by Charles Dickens. All proceeds benefited a charity helping the people of Haiti recover from the recent earthquake.

Franklin Theatre Works is a registered nonprofit theater that offers programs to students ages 6 to 18 in Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren Counties. A new performance arm, The Ensemble Theatre of New Jersey, consists of high school, college and adult actors and focuses on works of more mature content. The mission of Franklin Theatre Works is to promote the knowledge, appreciation and practice of the arts, especially theater, through the presentation of published plays, original works, classes, workshops and outreach programs.

The organization strives to enrich the lives of young people by providing an alternative to TV, computers and video games. Its programs promote creativity, self-esteem, collaboration and commitment, and focus on nurturing the individual while building an ensemble. In addition to learning basic through advanced acting techniques, students become good audience members and develop careful listening and keen observational skills.

The guiding spirit of Franklin Theatre Works is its executive director Maeve Pambianchi. Pambianchi has worked professionally in New York City, Philadelphia and regionally as an actor, singer and dancer. A long-time student of Obie award-winning director Gene Frankel, Pambianchi worked and lived in Paris for six years. After returning to America, she founded the Lambertville Cultural Center, where she taught for ten years.

Franklin Theatre Works began when Pambianchi's children were attending a school with a stage that had not been used for more than a decade. When she polled students about the possibility of starting a theater program, the response was overwhelmingly positive. "A lot of children were reaching out for something," says Pambianchi. After raising $13,000 to upgrade the facility, she selected an adaptation of Greek myths for 60 students who were eager to perform.

Pambianchi says her goal is to help students develop an ease of performance, both on and off the stage, while improving personal skills and self-confidence. "This company appeals to many types of children, but it's especially home to a few who aren't comfortable in other settings," she explains. "On stage, they fit in as their character. I find joy in watching children develop and expand. Begin with children if you want to make an impact on the world."

Pambianchi has received awards from the Hunterdon County Cultural and Heritage Commission and from Rural Awareness for her community service. Since founding Franklin Theatre Works in 2003, Pambianchi has directed hundreds of students in 40 full-scale dramas, comedies and musicals. Past productions have included Scrooge the Musical!, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, Hamlet, Jane Eyre and It's a Wonderful Life. The current company includes 130 students who receive training in acting and singing and learn the technical aspects of lighting, sound and set work. Productions are performed at the theaters of several schools in Hunterdon County, and each season runs from September through May.

Franklin Theatre Works is operated by volunteers. It is because of their dedication that the program exists. The majority of its revenue is generated through tickets sales, donations and grants. As a volunteer organization, Franklin Theatre Works does not charge its participants. However, a minimal membership fee is requested to help defray operating costs, and each family is asked to volunteer some time to help with the rehearsals, costumes and sets. According to Pambianchi, "It's a way of giving back to society."