Minnesota Man Starts Theater Company

Hometown Heroes, People
on September 16, 2001

In 1989, Eric Bunge turned to the dictionary when searching for a name for the fledgling theater company he was starting in Lanesboro, Minn. (pop. 788). As he thumbed through the pages, the word “commonweal” jumped out at him. (The term is a Middle English variation of commonwealth; it means “for the common good.”)

Since then, Commonweal Theatre Co. has brought professional theater to a former movie house, staged more than 2,000 performances from Little Shop of Horrors to A Christmas Carol, and helped inspire revitalization of the community’s historic downtown.

“It’s been a real catalyst for all the positive things that have happened,” says Peggy Hanson, owner of Cady Hays House Bed & Breakfast, a quarter mile from the theater.

It all began back in the late 1980s when Bunge, who grew up in nearby Preston, came home for the summer from his acting studies at the National Theater Conservatory in Denver. Downtown Lanesboro was struggling then, with lots of empty buildings on its main thoroughfare.

The Lanesboro Art Council asked Bunge if he’d be interested in putting on live performances in an abandoned downtown theater—the St. Mane. After the council fixed the leaking roof and made some other improvements, Bunge agreed and began raising funds to stage productions of Crimes of the Heart and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the summer of 1989.

“The people and businesses of southeast Minnesota accepted us and this crazy notion we had,” he recalls. “No one slammed a door in my face.”

After that first summer, Bunge and the small troupe of actors he had assembled discovered they’d broken even. Twelve years later, four founding members of the theater company are still at it, along with a supporting cast of 20, performing for mostly sold-out crowds during a 46-week season that runs from February to December and operates on an annual budget of $450,000.

“It’s such a privilege to work in a place where our art counts,” says actress Kristen Underwood, originally from San Francisco. Neither Underwood nor her husband, Hal Cropp, Commonweal’s executive director, ever envisioned living in a small town. Now, both reside happily in Lanesboro and help put on more than 200 performances a year.

In 1994, Cropp and Underwood joined Bunge and actress Carla Noack to make Commonweal a nonprofit, professional theater company. The theater’s audience, along with its reputation, has grown ever since.

“They’re doing more than Dames at Sea and Forever Plaid—they’re putting out challenging work and asking audiences to keep up,” wrote John Villani in his 1996 book The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America.

Commonweal’s reputation for excellence prompts frequent comparisons to Minneapolis’ famed Guthrie Theater. “I can’t count how many times people have told me after a performance, ‘Wow, that was a good as the Guthrie,’” says Cropp, an upstate New York native.

Commonweal’s adopted community has grown right along with the theater’s reputation. New restaurants, art galleries, shops, and bed & breakfasts have sprung up around town since 1989. In 1998, Lanesboro won the Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Commonweal’s success has been a big part of the town’s resurgence. “People would normally have to drive long distances and pay big bucks to see plays this good,” says Heidi Dybing, owner of the local Galligan House Bed & Breakfast. “It’s absolutely incredible.”

She estimates that up to 75 percent of her guests attend the theater when they visit. “It’s a huge draw,” Dybing says.

Meanwhile, Commonweal’s founders are delighted with their adopted home. “When an 8-year-old says she’s looking forward to live theater, or when a woman stops you on the street to tell you something she saw on stage has made her see her neighbors differently … well, that really makes life satisfying,” Cropp says.