Commonweal Theatre History
The Commonweal Theatre was founded in 1989 by Eric Lorentz Bunge at the behest of the Lanesboro Art Council. The company’s first season was eleven weeks long, employing ten artists who presented Crimes of the Heart and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first season’s audience of more than 3,000 attended 40 performances that summer, generating a budget of $20,782.
Modest growth in season length, company and audience size, number of productions, programs, and budget marked the first four years. Then, in 1991, the company performed its first outreach production and launched its student matinee program, and in 1992 began its high school conservatory program, a two-week, intensive immersion in theatre training for up to 20 area high school students. In 1993, in response to the community’s desire to lengthen visitor stays, the company moved to a rotating repertory season schedule, playing to over 9,000 patrons. By 1994 the production season extended to December.
In 1995 the company added the Lanesboro Radio Company, initially an unaffiliated group of community volunteers who created and produced Over the Back Fence. In 1996 the theatre undertook its first mainstage tour, bringing U.S.A. by John Dos Passos to Red Wing and Minneapolis. The company also began development of a script with playwright Robert Wolf based upon the true-life stories of farm families in the area over the past five decades; Heartland Portrait was workshopped for two years before being included in the 1998 mainstage tour and season to critical and audience acclaim.
February 1998 marked the inauguration of the company’s Ibsen Festival, an annual production and affiliated events relevant to the works and world of Henrik Ibsen. This annual festival became a signature event of each season, attracting Ibsen scholars and audiences from across the country. The company also established a touring program in 2001 to bring its Ibsen productions to communities throughout the Upper Midwest biennially.
Since the turn of the 21st century, the Commonweal has further developed its education programs, expanded the acting company, and created a New Play Series which has resulted in more than two dozen world premieres on the Commonweal stage. The construction of an artists’ residence in 1998—The Dixon House—continues to provide company housing, an accessible rehearsal/classroom, and production support facilities including prop, set, and costume storage and a costume shop.
A nine-year quest to plan for, build, and finance a new theater facility culminated in July, 2007, with the opening of a beautiful new home—The Commonweal. With participation from foundations, corporations and over 700 individual donors, the $3.5 million home has provided both the company and the region with a tremendous boost, with audiences growing to over 21,000 and the company’s budget to $1 million.
From simple beginnings the Commonweal has evolved into a major cultural, educational, and economic force for the region—one of the leading rural professional theatre companies in America.