In the summer of 1989, the Commonweal Theatre produced a two-show season of Crimes of the Heart and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Thirty-five years later, that theatre company boasts a five-show season from April through December, has staged over 160 productions, and welcomed more than a half a million audience members through its doors. The Commonweal was a midsummer dream that, over time, became a reality and a true success story of what it takes to operate a small, professional theatre company anywhere. The staggering fact is that this success story unfolds where the Root River bends in a town of 724 in rural Minnesota.
As the Commonweal continues its 35th year and celebrates 15 years of Give to the Max, we've asked a few former ensemble members to reflect on their life in Lanesboro and their time at the Commonweal.
I am grateful to be part of the Commonweal Family for more than 20 years. It is incredibly rare in this volatile industry for an artist to have an artistic home — a place that aligns with your values, where you love the work on stage, where you love and can argue with and trust the people you work, where you are delighted by the community you serve. The Commonweal is my artistic heart-home: it is a space that fostered some of my most important relationships; I learned to be a theater-maker here; I was challenged to take on development and organizational storytelling skills that continue to scaffold my life. I hold Commonweal as the standard of what theater can do and be in a community.—Amanda Rafuse (2002-2007)
In 2008, I got a commission from the Commonweal to write an original play, and was asked to write whatever I wanted, maybe some inspiration that hit me while visiting Lanesboro. That very evening, I was walking in the cool night air, comforted by the quiet of the town, watching how the grass met the pavement, and I was transported to my childhood. I wrote a play about returning home, and how a small town in the north can heal through the clean, purifying power of the cold. Lanesboro is wildly busy and bustling in the warm weather, but when winter settles over the town like a blanket, there is quiet and calm, and those left are the true folk of the town, looking after each other and sharing warmth. That is how Lanesboro hit me. It was so powerful, I moved there, hoping the theatre would hire me. My wife and I did work with the theatre and enjoyed a microcosm of that community. Working closely, daily with a small group of artists, we learned to rely on each other, help and care for each other, celebrate and comfort one another. It's deceptively hard work and a hard life, but the rewards could be dazzling. I grew as an artist at the Commonweal, learning (among other things) that it's okay to completely take apart, destroy and rebuild a script, a character, or even yourself. It's a safe place to be daring. And living once again in a small town I grew as a person, learning about the value of community, knowing where my food came from, and extending my boundaries beyond my front door.—Stan Peal (2010-2012)
I came to the Commonweal Theatre as a directing apprentice in 2011, while I learned so much about directing, the Commonweal gave me an "apprenticeship" in so many ways. I learned how to: properly sit while wearing a corset, run a team and be a good manager, navigate Quickbooks, coordinate a nonprofit board, take an amazing production photo and make compelling marketing materials, the power of breath, stillness, and eye contact onstage, the importance of taking the "extra step" in all things. And to think, for eight wonderful years, I got to do all of these things in a place where I made lifelong friendships, in a place that has the most incredible bluff views, in a place where a trail walk is steps away from my house or office, in a place where the shopkeepers greet you by name, in a place where your neighbors shovel your walk for you or stop you on the street to give you sweetcorn from their garden. I would not be the artist, nor the theatre manager I am today without the Commonweal, my forever artistic home.—Megan Pence (2011-2018)