The woman as a dog?
The end of Ibsen Fest?
The Commonweal’s Hal Cropp looks
back at 25 years … and forward to next season
The Commonweal Theatre Company is located in small-town Lanesboro, but it’s anything but small townish. Hal Cropp, who has been the theater company’s executive director for 25 years, says the Commonweal has developed national and international reputations for excellence.
And everyone who knows anything about local theater would agree.
That’s in no small part due to Cropp, who didn’t envision staying beyond a few years in Lanesboro when he first arrived and was immediately roped into walking in a parade—in full costume—for that year’s production of Little Shop of Horrors.
It was an accurate foretelling of adventures to come.
It’s said you’ve been involved with 80 productions at the Commonweal. Which production was your favorite to watch?
Probably if you polled a lot of people, they would say the same thing—Sylvia, which starred Adrienne Sweeney as a dog, which was a real treat to watch.
What’s been your favorite costume to wear for a production?
When we were doing Twelfth Night, the costumer went nuts and I had this vest made out of ties, which was tremendous fun to wear. That’s the costume that stands out to me.
Which productions have been the most popular or successful?
Midnight Dreary played to the most people per performance; 145 people every night saw that show. Sylvia certainly has resonated with our audience. Almost everyone walks up and says, “I just love that play where the woman played the dog.” In terms of the most number of people seeing a play, probably because it ran forever, it was The Odd Couple because it was so popular.
What’s kept you at the Commonweal for 25 years?
It’s the fulfillment of a life-long dream. I wanted a life in theater. I wanted to feel like my art, my work, was making a difference. The way the greater Commonweal community has embraced the company makes it feel like a fulfilling way to make a living, and tell stories that seem to resonate with people.
What do you like best about your job?
The company has been able to give a number of younger performers a home to further develop their skills and their talents. To watch them grow over five, eight, 10 years is incredibly rewarding.
What’s the most challenging part of your work?
Making ends meet.
What do you regard as Commonweal’s claim to fame?
I think the ability to create and maintain an artistic ensemble of talented artists and provide a life for them in a town of 750 is remarkable. Certainly people talk about the quality of the artistic work as being a hallmark, and I think that’s true. But equally important is that we’re still here.
In July it was announced that you’d end your annual commitment to producing the work of Henrik Ibsen. This was a hallmark for the Commonweal. What led to the change, and what does it mean for the theater and its regular patrons
Next year is the last year we’ll be doing Ibsen on an annual basis and the festival associated with Ibsen. It doesn’t mean we’ll never do Ibsen again. But he goes back into the pool of playwrights we consider. I think it’s the smartest decision for us to make at this time, after 20 years of doing Ibsen on an annual basis.
When you began 25 years ago, did you foresee having this length of tenure at the Commonweal?
No… If you’d asked me in 1992, “How’s it going? Do you think you’ll be here in 25 years?” I would have laughed at you. But this is … it’s breathtaking to think on one level about having made theater for 25 years. It’s humbling.
What’s your favorite play of all time you’ve attended outside of Lanesboro?
You know, when I was very young I saw Camelot on Broadway with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. My grandmother lived in New York City and took us. It was momentous. And then six years later I saw James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope, also on Broadway. That was really brilliant and breathtaking.
What type of work did you do prior to Commonweal?
I spent a number of years in administration in the healthcare industry… I also worked for a grocery chain as a deli manager for a couple of years.
What’s the oddest task you’ve ever undertaken as Commonweal’s executive director?
You mean besides unplugging a plugged toilet?
Have you ever had an embarrassing stage moment and if so, will you tell us about it?
Of course I have! I have had many embarrassing stage moments. I’m a huge Green Bay Packers fan and we were doing To Kill a Mockingbird. I brought a TV into the dressing room. The moment came when I and the sheriff are supposed to go on stage to shoot the dog. I remember quite clearly Aaron Rodgers had tossed a screen pass and as my cue came and went, everyone is waiting for Atticus to come and shoot the dog. They tap danced for a good three minutes on stage. It still embarrasses me to this day.
What are the best perks of being executive director at the Commonweal?
To be able to see great theater all the time, and to be able to work with really, really wonderful, creative, open-hearted artists. That is the best perk. To be able to perform, to be able to do work that fulfills me.
Coming up this season at the Commonweal are three, second-stage series plays: The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen; Waiting for Godot; and The Weir, all of which will be performed at various Lanesboro locations, including outside by the river and at a pub. On the main stage, Commonweal will put on When We Dead Awaken, The Elephant Man, Steel Magnolias, Ghost Writer and a holiday piece called The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge. For tickets (which typically range from $15-$35), call 800-657-7025 or check out www.commonwealtheatre.org.