Lanesboro is a well-known tourist destination, offering access to the Root River, Root River Bike Trail and a plethora of bed and breakfasts. Just as integral to the core of this vibrant community is the Commonweal Theatre Company.
Founded in 1989, the Commonweal began as a program of the Lanesboro Arts Council. In 1994, a group of five actors from the company decided to make the Commonweal its own non-profit.
“At that point, we started to expand the season,” says Hal Cropp, executive director of the theater who has been an actor there since 1992 and was one of those five actors. What had been just a summer season was expanded to May through October. “Then we started adding holiday shows and eventually it became an almost year-round theater,” Cropp explains. The first year saw an audience of 3,000. Since then, it has expanded to over 26,000.
Also starting in 1993, the theater moved to a rotating repertory schedule. This means that, instead of offering one play at a time, the theater overlaps performances. “(We were) cognizant of the fact that people were coming to town and spending a couple of days biking and thought if we could add two shows in a two day period, people would be more likely to spend another night in Lanesboro,” says Cropp. The theater is one of only a handful of companies in the nation to perform on such a schedule.
Their rotating schedule isn’t the only thing that sets the Commonweal apart from other theaters. With the intent of expanding the season even farther, at the request of local lodging establishments, the Commonweal decided to dedicate the first part of every season to the works of Henrik Ibsen.
“This area is rife with Norwegian Americans and it reflects the culture of the region,” says Cropp, nothing that Ibsen is Norway’s most famous playwright. The opening weekend of the Ibsen show is always accompanied by other Norwegian events and has become a real celebration of Norwegian culture. The celebration has been recognized by the government of Norway and, in 2008, the theater became one of the first winners of the International Ibsen Scholarship.
Creating a deeper awareness
The Commonweal is very intentional about everything it does. The theater tries to frame every show and, arguably, every action, within the framework of ‘how does this speak to our community?’ Even the interior design was crafted with community interest in mind. Designer Karl Unnash reused stones and wooden beams from old barns for the visual cornerstones and pulled form local traditions to create a carefully crafted veiling installation, complete with old farming equipment. “We want the public space [of the theater] to reflect the cultural lifestyle of the community,” says Cropp.
The company is invested in “bringing a deeper awareness of the human condition to our region” through the plays it presents. Cropp explains that every play is deeply analyzed by those in the company before given the go-ahead to be added to the performance schedule. “What is it about this piece that illuminates the human condition in a way that will make people leave the theater understanding more about their neighbors, understanding a little bit more about the world in which they live?…How am I going to get to a point of understanding? And that is really how we search to seek the common good,” says Cropp.
Asking these deeply philosophical questions means every production has meaning and brings something to the community. The shows are high-quality artistic productions performed by mostly local actors, supplemented by seasonal actors. The local performers are involved in the community in a myriad of ways—think library board members, city council members, Meals on Wheels volunteers.
“We want people to feel at home, to feel as if they know us and can approach us,” says Cropp. By combining a level of familiarity with professionalism of theater, the Commonweal strives to “demystify the theatrical experience” and let everyone experience the beauty of storytelling through theater.