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Finding Minnesota: Small Town Drama

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(credit: CBS) Mike Binkley
Mike Binkley has been covering Minnesota news for more than 25 year...
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LANESBORO, Minn. (WCCO) — Funding cuts and the recession have created hard times for many actors. But somehow, a professional theater in a small Minnesota town is still thriving.

Lanesboro (population 754) is home to the Commonweal Theatre, which is just starting a new season.

It’s in the heart of a town known for the surrounding bluffs, the scenic Root River and unique shops.

But the Commonweal, with more than 170 performances each year, has become a tourist draw of its own – featuring many actors who have moved to Lanesboro from other states.

“Theaters like this one are really a dying breed, where you can really plant roots in the community and stay for as long as you want to,” said actor Jeremy van Meter, who moved with his wife from Chicago.

The performers know they can count on a paycheck, because along with their work on stage, they’re also running the place.

They’re the ones who take care of marketing, managing the facilities — even selling concessions.

“I love it,” said actor Stefanie Dickens, originally from Madison, Wisconsin, “because I know so many actors that have to have jobs, other day jobs or wait tables to make it possible for them to act. And for us, we get to put our energies in the company.”

Stefanie’s husband, Jason, is employed as the Commonweal’s lighting designer.

It’s a theater company with close ties to the community.

The building is decorated with items reclaimed from the area, as a tribute to those who buy the tickets.

“The community is very important to all of us who live and work here,” said actor Adrienne Sweeney, who is also the marketing director. “Otherwise we probably wouldn’t be here.”

The theater staff has even reclaimed something from the Twin Cities. Visitors may recognize the seats from the old Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

“No seat is more than 30 feet from the stage,” said actor Hal Cropp, who is also the executive director. “It feels like the story is in your lap.”

It’s an intimate setting, from actors who are personally invested.

“I wasn’t looking to get famous,” said van Meter. “I wasn’t looking to make money. I was just looking to make a stable life in this business.”

The Commonweal Theatre is now gearing up for its 15th annual “Ibsen Festival,” a tribute to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

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