Many years ago, in the halls of Preston-Fountain High School, a drama teacher saw potential in one of his students and convinced him to participate in the school play.
Years later, that same student was in graduate school when a local woman asked him to organize a community theater group to perform in Lanesboro’s St. Mane Theatre.
Because those two individuals, Robert O’Reilly and Janene Roessler, dared to pursue a “hair-brained idea,” and because Eric Bunge made the decisions he did, the arts and theater offerings have become an integral part of the Lanesboro community. The rippling effects of those early decisions led to the renovations of St. Mane Theatre, which became the home of what eventually became Commonweal Theatre. When the theater company expanded and continued to grow and develop, Bunge and his Commonweal colleagues orchestrated an intensive fundraising campaign to successfully build a new theater - located just down the street from the St. Mane.
Fast forward to 2014 and each one of those monumental steps is now having a ripple effect on a small arts community in Vermont.
White River Junction has a population of 2,500 people, located at the junction of two rivers in Vermont. Bunge said the community is a lot like the small, rural communities in Fillmore County, which were booming when the railroads ran through the countryside. However, hard times came when modes of transportation changed and the railroads pulled their tracks.
Even though the railways still run through White River Junction, the town began to fail when cars became more popular and travelers began traveling by interstates instead of railroads, bypassing the small community.
In the past several years, however, the community — like Lanesboro — is finding a new niche in the arts and tourism.
Part of the Upper Valley Region, Bunge explained the region encompasses a 30-mile radius in Vermont and New Hampshire that is very similar to the Bluff Country Region in southeastern Minnesota.
Another similarity is that a small theater company has found a home in White River Junction and has been operating in the historic Briggs Opera House since 1997. But, again like Lanesboro, the theater group is growing and those frequenting the productions want and need a more modern facility. The opera house is located on the second level of an old building, making accessibility an issue for those who have trouble climbing steps.
So, with the help of Bunge, and two former Commonweal staff members, Amanda Rafuse and Irene ErkenBrack Green, the community is working to revitalize its own arts facility through an extensive fundraising campaign.
Bunge explained the proposed project includes a fundraising goal of $9 million, which includes costs to build the new theater, but also creates a strong financial foundation for being able to manage and maintain the facility for years to come.
The response to the fundraising has been phenomenal, Bunge added. “We just passed $6.1 million in fundraising,” he reported on Aug. 7. “That gets us to the place we need to be in order to break ground on Sept. 16.”
The hope is the new theater will be ready for the 2015 season, which would begin a year from the groundbreaking.
Fundraising began in February of this year and the funds quickly started coming in from patrons and a few small corporations in the region.
The supporters have been generous and Bunge attributes the overwhelming response to the fact the theater patrons not only see the need for a new facility, but also desire the expanded offerings and opportunities this new build will provide to the arts community.
The Northern Stage Theatre operates on a schedule almost opposite of that of the Commonweal. Plays are offered through the fall and winter months. “They didn’t want to compete with the summer stock theaters,” Bunge said.
He added that many from the area go to their cabins for the summer and prefer spending time at the theater in the winter.
With the new theater, it is hoped that more summer programs will be offered for aspiring drama students and students at Dartmouth College.
The Vermont theater company also has the good fortune of being located only four hours from New York City. “It is easy to hire New York actors,” Bunge said. “We have access to all their actors, from Broadway to off-Broadway.”
Actors from New York find it beneficial to travel to White River Junction as they may have an opportunity to play a role they wouldn’t normally get to play in New York.
“And, many just like to get out of the city and breathe,” Bunge added.
Bunge became the managing director for the Northern Stage Theatre in 2013 when a former colleague, Carol Dunne, had been hired as the artistic director for Northern Stage and she and the theater’s board were committed to reorganizing the company and building a new theater.
Knowing what Bunge and the Commonweal had accomplished in Lanesboro, she knew he would be an integral part of their plans. He brought on two past Commonweal staff members, Green and Rafuse, who had also worked in marketing and fundraising in Lanesboro.
Rafuse served as the development director at the Commonweal and was also an actress in plays since 2001. Most recently she appeared in “Blithe Spirit,” Bunge said. She was also the campaign manager for the fundraising for the new Commonweal building.
Green first appeared in the play, “The Wild Duck,” and ended up as the box office manager and resident artist at the Commonweal. She also followed Bunge to the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona where she was the director of sales and marketing before joining him to Northern Stage in Vermont.
Perhaps the greatest similarity to Lanesboro is how White River Junction has transformed into an art-friendly community following the development of its theater group, just as Lanesboro did following the establishment of the Commonweal.
“We are strong together,” Bunge said. “It is definitely a collaboration and while the Commonweal has done a lot for the community, the community has also done a lot for the Commonweal.”
Like Lanesboro residents, those who live in White River Junction are also supportive of the new kinds of businesses that have come to their community in recent years, such as coffee shops, galleries, jewelry studios and novelty shops.
Bunge only sees that support growing as the new theater is built and begins its operations. “The people of White River Junction are great people and we want something great for the community,” he added.
One of the greatest lessons Bunge has learned throughout his life is that sometimes the most “hair brained” ideas are the ones that can have the biggest rippling effects through communities.
“Now, those ‘hair brained’ ideas don’t seem so ‘hair brained’ because those ideas actually worked,” he said.
Because O’Reilly had an idea to ask Bunge to join the drama club, he got into acting and decided that’s the career path he wanted to pursue. Because Janene (Roessler) had the idea to call him and ask him to put together a theater group in Lanesboro to perform at the St. Mane, that spurred a ripple that created the Commonweal Theatre.
The personal connections made through Bunge’s education and career in the theater enabled him to become a part of something new and exciting in Vermont.
“People who were a big part of things here, and in my life, are now a part of what is happening in Vermont, whether they know it or not,” he added.
Bunge wants everyone in the area to be proud of what has been accomplished in Lanesboro, but to be even prouder of how those early decisions have had that ripple effect far beyond Lanesboro in the small community of White River Junction.
Only time will tell how that community’s own ‘hair brained’ ideas will affect others through the ripple effect.