Eric Bunge and his friends from theater grad school in Denver had big plans for the future.

"We were going to go to New York and Los Angeles," Bunge recalled.

Before that, though, came the opportunity to stage a play in Lanesboro, where the local arts organization had recently purchased the St. Mane Theatre. "They just called me out of the blue and asked if I was interested in coming back," said Bunge, who is originally from Preston.

So in the summer of 1989, Bunge, Scott Putnam, and Scott Olsen put New York and L.A. on the back burner and instead launched the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro with a production of "Crimes of the Heart."

Tickets were $7.50. "We didn’t even know if people would show up," Bunge said. "But in the first eight weeks we had 3,000 people attend and we paid all of our bills. We said, ‘Maybe we should come back.’"

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The Commonweal has been back every year since then, and now performs in its own theater that opened in 2007. Bunge, meanwhile, is now executive director of Northern Stage, a professional theater in White River Junction, Vt. where a new performance hall opened two years ago. New downtown development has followed.

"In many, many ways, it reminds me of what happened in Lanesboro," Bunge said. "The arts and culture became the cornerstone of the community."

There have been changes in Lanesboro since 1989, with restaurants and shops opening and closing, inns coming and going, but through it all, the Commonweal has survived and thrived.

"It’s truly breathtaking," said Hal Cropp, executive director of the Commonweal, "to think that that this region enables a core of 15 artists to make their living doing theater in a community that is microscopic in comparison to others."

Bunge said an early lesson for the Commonweal came with the staging of classical and serious dramas, rather than popular plays. "We learned we could do serious work and fill the theater," he said. "We learned we can trust the audience to be smarter than we were."

Reflecting on three decades of the Commonweal, Bunge said, "I’m pretty proud of it, watching the community develop around the arts and culture. That can’t be a bad thing. It has to be a good thing."

, 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Reservations required at 800-657-7025.

1 p.m. Larry Mascotti explains how thinking about the universe changed following Leavitt’s discoveries.

2:30 p.m. Documentary film.

3 p.m. Hal Cropp looks back at highlights and landmarks of the Commonweal’s history.

7:30 p.m., followed by an opening night celebration with the cast at 9:30 p.m.

The new season opens not with Ibsen, but with "Silent Sky," a drama by Lauren Gunderson. The show opens April 7 and runs through June 23. It is the story of Henrietta Leavitt and her team of female "computers" in the early 20th century at the Harvard Observatory. Despite not being to use the Harvard lab telescopes, Leavitt and her team made groundbreaking discoveries about the nature of the universe.

"It’s important to do this one, I think where we’re at at this point in our society," Cropp said. "I think it’s time to positively focus on the role of women historically and celebrate that."