Newsmakers in 2019: Cropp, Commonweal persevere through tragic year

December 30, 2018

LANESBORO — The conclusion of the 30th anniversary season of a professional theater company in a small town would normally be a time to celebrate.

But as the 2018 season wound down in recent weeks at the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, the mood was anything but celebratory. “It was definitely bittersweet,” said Hal Cropp, executive director of the Commonweal.

Through 2018, and in fact during the prior year as well, the Commonweal family had to confront the terminal illness of actor/playwright Scott Dixon, who joined the company in 2001. Dixon succumbed to cancer on Nov. 29, just as what was supposed to be a jolly Christmas production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” had opened.

Somehow, Cropp kept the Commonweal focused all season on producing good work on stage, even while grieving for a friend and colleague.

“To say it was difficult is an understatement,” Cropp said. “But I’m incredibly proud of the work the company did.”

Cropp is completing his 27th season at the Commonweal, which under his leadership has defied the odds normally stacked against small, professional theater companies. The Commonweal has become an integral part of the cultural fabric of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and western Wisconsin. It attracts audiences from those regions, as well as from the Twin Cities.

But the company remains a close-knit group of professionals who, by the nature of living in a small town, are unusually close to their audience and to each other.

That’s one reason Dixon’s illness was so devastating to company members.

“There are four of us here who have known Scott all 18 years he was here, others who never saw Scott healthy, and others who just met him this year,” Cropp said. “This person whom we all love deeply was going through a horrific end-of-life experience.”

Frequent meetings allowed everyone at the Commonweal to express their feelings, and a grief counselor was brought in after Dixon died.

It has been a doubly difficult time for Cropp, who as the leader of the company was also dealing with the impending loss of a close personal friend. “It just hurts,” he said. “It’s going to hurt for a long time.”

The Commonweal has stood side-by-side with Dixon’s widow, Stela Burdt, who is also a Commonweal actor, and the couple’s young son. “We have a strong commitment to supporting them,” Cropp said.

That kind of family and community embrace is part of what impressed Cropp when he first arrived in Lanesboro. He remembers early on being stopped on the street by passersby eager to discuss the previous night’s play.

“From the beginning,” he said, “I recognized there was something unique we were forging with the people who were coming to see our work.”

When Season 31 launches in April, that bond will likely be as strong as ever.

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