“I have witnessed people’s attitudes in and around Lanesboro softening…I hear stories time and again about how our performances are making a difference in people’s understanding and their willingness to accept their neighbors.” – Hal Cropp, Executive Director, Commonweal Theatre Company
Hal Cropp’s mother encouraged him to get an MBA as a backup in case acting didn’t work out. It has ended up being as useful as his MFA in his role as executive director of the Commonweal Theatre Company in Lanesboro, a town of 750 in southeastern Minnesota. In his past 27 years at the company, he has held every position in the theater where he’s combined both artistic and financial acumen to grow Commonweal into an economic engine for the region. Hal has also been in at least one Commonweal Theatre production each year since 1992. “When people ask me why I do this work, I freely confess that theater holds the greatest potential for spreading peace human-to-human throughout humanity,” said Hal.
If you visit the Commonweal, you’ll see its mission statement on the renovated wall of what had been an old cheese factory: to enrich the common good through actor-based storytelling which is both transcendent and relevant. Toward the goal of the common good, they’ve created an art-filled community space in addition to their state-of-the-art yet intimate theater, where no seat is more than 35 feet from the stage. Every season, the Commonweal produces five mainstage plays, which the company collectively helps select. In addition to their mainstage productions, Commonweal does K-12 student matinees for the surrounding community schools.
Artist-Audience Connection through a Model of Practicality
The Commonweal reflects the practicality built of necessity in a smaller community by operating with an artist/administrator model; resident ensemble members (who have come from all over the country to make their home in the Lanesboro area) fulfill the day-to-day artistic and operational needs of the company. There’s also a community benefit to operating this way. “Because we’re all doing everything, the person on stage will be the person handing you a program the next night, which demystifies the experience between the audience and the artist and allows for deeper ownership on behalf of the audience,” explained Hal. “It strengthens their commitment to the company in a really tangible way.” Sixty percent of the Commonweal’s audience comes from within 60 miles of the theater, but it also draws audience members from the Twin Cities, South Dakota, Iowa, and Western Wisconsin.
Southeastern Minnesota’s commitment to the Commonweal is made clear by how it helps to support the theater not only through tickets but through donations. Like most nonprofit theater companies, additional funding is necessary to fill the cost gap not covered by ticket sales. “It’s incredibly difficult to achieve traditional funding sources in a town of 750,” said Hal. With no major corporations and many large foundations writing them off as simply another small town community theater, the Commonweal started what it then called a Million Dollar Club in 1998. The idea: create a circle of donors committed to contributing a collective total of $100,000 annually for general operating support for 10 years, or a million dollars over a decade. “That giving club was fully subscribed in year four,” said Hal. Through the MDC (what it’s now called) as well as Give to the Max Day contributions, the Commonweal has maintained a historic average of 50 percent donated and 50 percent earned revenue; it now has over $152,000 coming in annually in donated general operating funds.
Connecting with Artist Leaders through Equity Builder
Despite the company’s strong community support and financial savvy, Hal knew there would be a benefit in participating in Propel Nonprofits’ Equity Builder Loan Program. The Commonweal used an Equity Builder loan for long-term working capital to assist in the stabilization of its balance sheet. Given that the theater company owns not just their performance and community building, but a 14-room artist residence that houses apprentices, directors, designers, and other seasonal artists throughout the year, funding depreciation on these historic buildings was a challenge. The Equity Builder loan helps the Commonweal generate a surplus to be able to fund depreciation longer term.
For Hal, the benefits of the Equity Builder program are more than financial. “The cohort experience of the program has been incredibly valuable in that it allows me and encourages me to connect with peers that otherwise I almost never have a chance to,” said Hal. In addition, the Commonweal is planning on using additional resources from the Equity Builder Loan Program to train other staff in the administrative part of the Commonweal’s operations, beyond the artist element. It has also given the theater’s board members a chance to see how strong the Commonweal’s support is at a time when many nonprofit theaters are looking for creative solutions to manage cash flow.
As Hal approaches his 28th season, he’s enduringly optimistic about theater’s ability to connect people across differences, especially in rural communities in politically polarizing times. “What keeps me doing the work is the notion that we are really having an impact on how people perceive the world and how people perceive their neighbors,” said Hal. “I have witnessed people’s attitudes in and around Lanesboro softening…I hear stories time and again about how our performances are making a difference in people’s understanding and their willingness to accept their neighbors.”
If you’re looking for an excuse to visit the Commonweal Theatre Company, Hal recommends Peter and the Starcatcher, which he is directing, as well as On the Verge, playing through November 10. You can purchase tickets and learn more about the Commonweal Theater Company at its website: https://www.commonwealtheatre.org/
Top photo credit: Peterson Creative Photography & Design