Dramatic Difference

With a new multi-million-dollar facility opening this month, Commonweal Theatre is poised to boost Lanesboro’s reputation as an arts destination. Again.

LANESBORO IS A TOWN OF 788 people, bookended by grain bins and a bluff. It’s about a three-hour drive southeast of Minneapolis—longer if you’ve got anything less than six cylinders under the hood. It’s the kind of place where, for most of the year anyway, you could play a quick game of checkers in the middle of Main Street before any cars—or tractors or Amish buggies—came along. Where the rattle of cattle trailers passes for noise pollution, and no one blinks when a John Deere pulls up to the gas pump. It’s the kind of place, in other words, more likely to be the setting for a play—probably by Thornton Wilder, possibly featuring mice and men—than the host of one.

But Lanesboro has a theater company, the Commonweal, that’s good enough to have performed at the Guthrie Theater this past spring and big enough to have an annual budget of $600,000. It’s a company whose director was recently honored by the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts for his contributions to the state’s cultural scene, and whose actors are lucky enough to be paid. In fact, the Commonweal is the second-largest employer in Lanesboro, after the schools, and has a subscriber base of 1,500 patrons—nearly twice the town’s population. This month, the Commonweal moves into a $3.2 million facility, one of the finest new theater spaces in the state. How did this happen in a town with fewer residents than the Guthrie has employees?

Eric Bunge, who co-founded the Commonweal in 1989 and now serves as its managing director, sometimes asks himself the same thing. “It shouldn’t be here,” he says of the new space. And neither should he, given where Lanesboro was headed 18 years ago. The farm crisis had taken its toll. The first leg of the Root River State Trail, which now draws thousands of bicyclists and other tourists to southeastern Minnesota, had yet to come through town. “Almost every building on this street was for sale,” Bunge says of Lanesboro’s main drag, Parkway Avenue, where the Commonweal sits. “You could have had any one of them for $10,000.”

A native of nearby Preston, Bunge was a graduate student at the time, studying theater in Colorado. But he hadn’t been forgotten at home. The Lanesboro Arts Council was looking to put the town back on the map, and a friend leading the group gave Bunge, then 25, a call. The group owned an old movie theater—could he use that to put on a play? He could and he did, returning home on summer breaks to secure a small grant, solicit funds door-to-door, and two years later stage the initial season with the Pulitzer Prize—winning drama Crimes of the Heart and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I didn’t know if anyone would show up,” Bunge admits. But 3,000 people came over an 11-week run, most of them, of course, from out of town.

“As soon as we started the theater,” Bunge says, “[tourists] had this impetus to stay overnight. Lanesboro wasn’t a tourist destination when we started. It became a tourist destination because of the Commonweal and the arts.”

When the Commonweal opened, Lanesboro had one bed-and-breakfast; the area now has so many that nearly every resident could board at someone else’s place. But the Commonweal, in a way, is just getting started—its new space has greatly expanded the theater’s capacity. If those seats can be filled, Lanesboro may change yet again.

NO ONE CALLS Lanesboro “sewer city” anymore. But they did for decades over in Preston, Lanesboro’s traditional rival. Preston is twice as big and a few miles down the Root River, and everyone knows what that means for the folks below. It didn’t help that hundreds of animals were, and still are, hauled into town on auction days over at the Lanesboro Sales Commission, a few blocks off the main drag. When the wind is right, you can still catch a whiff of rusticity right outside the Commonweal. But no one points it out, not in Preston or Harmony or any other nearby town. Because none of these other places pulls in two to three times their population in tourists on summer weekends. The theater, most agree, has made all the difference.

From the beginning, the Commonweal has been directly involved in encouraging tourism. In 1990, a year after the Commonweal’s founding, Bunge began the Lanesboro Office of Tourism at the theater and developed it as a kind of vacancy-referral service, taking calls from potential visitors and steering them toward bed and breakfasts. Soon the actors were spending as much time on the phone as onstage, fielding up to 1,800 calls a month before the Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce took over the service. When the Commonweal was asked by the bed-and-breakfasts if it could do anything to lengthen visitor stays, the troupe responded with a rotating repertory, so patrons could see two different shows in a weekend. When the Commonweal was asked if it could help make Lanesboro a year-round destination, the troupe expanded its summer-only season to include a winter festival of plays by Henrik Ibsen, the 19th-century Norwegian playwright. Now the theater, like the town, is jam-packed, selling out nearly a quarter of its shows every year.

About the only thing in town that hasn’t changed is the Commonweal itself. In 1992, Hal Cropp, an acquaintance of Bunge’s from theater school, was hired as an actor and became the theater’s executive director two years later. But until this month, Cropp has been forced to stage plays in a space he diplomatically calls a “grande dame.” In fact, it’s more like a geezer. The light and sound room is as cramped as a telephone booth. A sign in the dressing room warns “don’t flush toilet during performance,” as more than one quiet moment onstage has been crudely interrupted this way.

The new theater, built next to the old facility, with a mix of private and foundation funding, has a state-of-the-art sound and light system, a lobby seven times as big as before, and 186 seats (as opposed to 126 in the old space, or a few shy of the black-box theater in the new Guthrie). It also has something even many established troupes don’t have: a separate rehearsal area, which, in keeping with the troupe’s community focus, faces the street so passersby can watch. Other local touches include the quirky “donor pantry,” a lobby display of glass jars in which donors can place any object they wish. The bathrooms feature vintage chalkboards as stall dividers and feed scoops as flower planters, and yes, you can flush all you want during the show.

Given its thrust stage and importance to the local economy—and the fact that its seats and most of the dressing-room furnishings came from the old Guthrie Theater—the new Commonweal feels like a mini-Guthrie. Or, as Cropp puts it, “the rural Guthrie.” The troupe’s focus now is on living up to the comparison.

ATTENDING A PLAY at the Commonweal, Bunge believes, is in some ways like communion. No wafers but plenty of community, a ritual of coming together to share the same experience and hopefully be the better for it. About 60 percent of Commonweal’s patrons come from within a hundred miles; another 30 percent drive in from the Twin Cities area, and the rest visit from Milwaukee, Omaha, or other Midwestern cities. On a recent weekend in the old space, the patrons are mostly sporting jeans, with at least one bolo tie in the bunch. There are a surprising number of them, especially for a show nearing the end of a long run. After each attendee has received a program from one of the two children at the door and has settled in, there are few empty seats.

The 10 actors in the Commonweal resident and seasonal company are all required to pull double duty, augmenting their acting with marketing, ticket sales, and other house jobs. Thus, the media-relations person is an actress who, on this night, is also working the box office and welcoming the audience from the stage. The actors, drawn from across the country, have an unusually close relationship with the community, mostly by choice, partly because there’s nowhere to hide. “You’re going to be asked questions about your performance,” says Bunge. Cropp remembers walking home after his first show (Little Shop of Horrors) and having a patron say, “I need to discuss this with you—do you think the play is a criticism of capitalism?” It was a revelation, Cropp says, “in what the power of theater can achieve in a small setting.”

Tonight’s show, acted with the kind of competence generally unseen outside larger theaters in larger cities, is Ghosts by Ibsen, who is known for his dark meditations on ethics and society—hardly a natural crowd-pleaser. “It would be very easy to do dishonorable work and fill the theater,” says Bunge. “It’s even easier to do honorable work and not fill the theater. But how do you do honorable work and fill the theater?”

It’s a question the Commonweal will be asking itself often now that it needs to sell many more tickets. But by presenting a balance of challenging and feel-good theater—not to mention possibly saving the town—Bunge and Cropp believe they’ve earned the community’s trust. Some early doubters, those who thought theater was just so much declaiming in the dark, now volunteer at the Commonweal. It’s a loyalty Bunge believes the troupe can leverage into 5,000 or 6,000 more patrons within a year of opening the new theater. “It’s like rooting for your favorite team,” he says. “Only this isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about deepening your understanding of the human condition.”

Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.