The Commonweal unveils a new theater

Commonweal church
The view from the stage in the new Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

The Commonweal's home has been the Saint Mane Theatre.

Pioneer Press theatre critic Dominic Papatola says the Saint Mane was built around 1890. It has no wings for side exits and a tiny, shallow stage with no pit.

Old Commonweal
The Saint Mane Theater has been home to the Commonweal since the company's founding. It's an old movie theater and besides being cramped for audiences and performers, it lacks wings, and an orchestra pit.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

"It was cramped, both for the patrons and for the actors," Papatola says. "And, not to put too fine a point on it, but it didn't smell very good. It was kind of musty."

It also sounded a bit like a tunnel as the actors words and the audiences reactions bounced off the concrete walls.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Patrons have come to the Commonweal, not for the fabulous sets and comfy seats, but for the creative work and smalltown, homey atmosphere. Still, in the new space, even a rehearsal for sounds better.

The new space has 191 seats and a thrust stage, placing the audience on three sides of the players. It feels grown-up in comparison to the St. Mane.

Executive Director Hal Cropp leads a tour.

"It is fabulous. It is a fabulous space," he says opening the theater doors.

The Ark
The new Commonweal Theater lobby features the work of local artist Karl Unnasch hanging from the ceiling, including this piece called "The Ark."
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

He points out the high ceilings and expansive lighting grid. The building also has a library, a rehearsal space that mirrors the stage, large dressing rooms and a green room.

Cropp walks through the lobby. It's built with limestone from the region and the company had regional artist Karl Unnasch to cover the ceiling with art. There are farmtools and furniture. Toys too. Cropp points to "The Ark," a bedstand hanging overhead filled with model animals.

"It's said that this is now a lobby with hundreds of stories," Cropp says. "Each one of these objects has its own story attached to it. So people will be thinking about stories and then they will come into the theater and hear that night's story."

It's commonly held that Lanesboro is tourist destination because of the Root River bike trail and the Commonweal Theatre. Over the last 20 years the town has gone from a pretty but dusty town to a picturesque bed and breakfast destination.

Nonetheless the majority of the Commonweal's audience comes from within 50 miles.

Hal Cropp
Hal Cropp is the executive director of the Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro. His role will change with the new building and he will focus exclusively on being artistic director of the Commonweal.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

The new building significantly raises the stakes for the Commonweal. Facility costs will double. And it has 70 more seats to fill every night. Cropp says it was a risk to build the new theater. But the expansion was critical if the company wants to survive for another 20 seasons.

"We're not making a unique kind of theater," Cropp admits. "That's not what the company does. We do make it in a slightly unique kind of way."

Cropp says the theater survives because of the community's need for live theater and the need to attract visitors.

"That need's not going away," he says.

Theatergoers are also much needed hotel and dinner guests at Lanesboro's other businesses.

Theater critic Dominic Papatola says the new building may bring even more patrons to the Commonweal, but it likely will also mean the company may make safer content choices, just to fill the seats.

Eric Bunge
Commonweal founder Eric Bunge is returning to the organization as the managing director.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

He says the new building may pose some identity challenges for the Commonweal, too.

"People want to come because they want to feel like they're going to this little secret place. On the other hand, there has to be a certain number of people who know about that secret place to make it successful," he says. "So the tipping point is how do you get that balance between, 'Yeah we're this cool small town,' without being commercial."

The Commonweal designed its new building to blend into the existing streetscape.

The theater's Hal Cropp says the new building is the prompt for other significant changes.

Founder Eric Bunge will return as managing director. Cropp will become artistic director. In the past the theater has taken a communal approach, but now Cropp and Bunge will make the decisions.

Cropp says while he may choose crowd-pleasers 60 percent of the season, he will be broadening the Commonweal's work for the rest of it.

He says next season the company will perform the Greek classic, "Antigone." It will also do "Harvey" with 11 cast members, a huge number for the Commonweal.