Eric Bunge ’84 will tell you that he has chosen a life path rather than a career—a life path of service to others. The name of the professional theatre he founded in 1989 aptly bears the name “Commonweal” (for the common good; for the good of the community), and stands as a monument to Eric’s creativity and his ability to move an entire community in a fresh new direction.
Since then the professional artists of the Commonweal Theatre have brought to life soulful stories told with honesty and creativity. Located in the heart of southeast Minnesota’s bluff country, Lanesboro (pop. 788) is home to the company’s new theatre in its historic downtown, where Eric Bunge ’84, the founder and former managing director of the theatre continues to help reinvent his community, infusing his own brand of excitement and optimism with his artistic entrepreneurial vision. The Commonweal has helped transform Lanesboro from a sleepy out-of-the-way agricultural town into a tourist Mecca and a center for artistic creation. Eric sees art, artists, and art making as central to the health of any city, state, or country, and a visit to Lanesboro will convince anyone that his vision works.
From prodding the governor, to pushing the state legislature, and encouraging colleagues, friends and family to support a state-of-the-art performance facility in a former cheese factory, Eric and his community have created a place sustained by the arts, a river and a scenic bike trail. All three of these amenities draw thousands of visitors to this charming destination each year. Quaint bed and breakfasts have sprung up, and fine restaurants, ice cream stores, and shops line the downtown streets of this once quiet village.
In July 2007, the new $3.5 million Commonweal facility opened to wide acclaim. While offering patrons a welcoming, intimate experience in a 200-seat house, the exterior façade recreates three charming Lanesboro shop fronts, and the interior design focuses on the natural beauty and history of the region with barn doors acting as bathroom stalls, stone walls mirroring the surrounding bluffs, concrete floors reflecting the building’s prior life as a cheese factory, and seats reclaimed from the original Guthrie Theatre.
Last year, Bunge left the Commonweal, and this past summer, joined the Winona-based Great River Shakespeare Festival as its managing director.
The GRSF is clearly looking to Bunge to help take the Festival into a new phase. Producing Director Paul Barnes is quoted as saying: "It's rare to find someone of Eric's theatre management background and experience outside a major metropolitan area. I look forward to working with Eric in the coming years as the Festival deepens its roots in Winona and throughout the region."
Eric’s mentor at Luther, professor of theatre Robert Larson says, “Ideas, visions, thoughts explode from Eric like popcorn. A few kernels may never pop while a few might burn around the edges, but more frequently Eric’s bowl is filled with tasty morsels shared and served to others, inviting them to engage with him in yet another imaginative enterprise. “
His imaginative world is, in part shaped by his Luther journey where as an English major literature danced in his mind/body while participating in theatre and becoming an all-American pole-vaulter in track and field.
Says Eric, “My Luther years were filled with building and strengthening friendships. Friendships with other students and friendships with professors and Luther staff that continue to ripple in my daily life even after 26 years have gone by since my graduation. And, all along the way, my Luther College was there. Encouraging me, supporting me, reminding me of the Luther family commitment to service; service to others, service to community, service to the common good.”