10. Lanesboro, MN
In the cliff-lined valley of the Root River about 125 miles southeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Lanesboro was on its way out, bypassed by the railroad and mired in agricultural crises, when the curtain first went up at the Commonweal in 1989. A year later, the theater's co-founder, Eric Bunge, opened the town's office of tourism, and owners of fine old Victorian homes around Parkway Avenue started plumping up pillows for visitors who wanted to stay over to see two or three plays. Now the town is known as the bed-and-breakfast capital of Minnesota.
Hal Cropp, the Commonweal's executive director, refuses to credit the town's revival solely to the Commonweal, also citing the Root River Trail System, a bikeway developed in the 1980s. It winds along the waterway for 60 miles—through hamlets and farm country in this scenic geological anomaly known as the Driftless Area, which is marked by hills, ridges and deeply entrenched rivers because it avoided the ice age glaciation that flattened much of the Midwest.
There's also the Lanesboro Arts Center, which shows the work of 100 regional artists, mounts an Art in the Park fair (in June, right after the Rhubarb Festival) and sponsors the "Over the Back Fence" radio hour, Lanesboro's answer to "A Prairie Home Companion," staged monthly in the circa 1870 St. Mane Theatre.
But it's the Commonweal, considered one of the sharpest, most innovative small regional theaters in the country, that has garnered attention, putting it on a trajectory not unlike the Guthrie in Minneapolis. As a matter of fact, seats salvaged from the original Guthrie now accommodate audiences at the Commonweal, which occupies a series of renovated storefronts along Parkway Avenue. Its company of professional actors play major administrative roles between productions, which run from March to December and include challenging works by playwrights like Tom Stoppard and especially Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian like so many of the immigrants who put down roots in Minnesota. Never mind that Lanesboro's entire resident population of 745 could find a seat in Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
If you tell Cropp that you thought live theater was dead, he says, "I read that headline, too."