The Shows Must Go On

The Straw Hat Players are back in June, but in a different setting than this photo from 2019’s “Breaking Up” — outdoors on the MSUM campus mall. The first show by the slimmed-down troupe, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” is June 1-3,

Straw Hat season goes outdoors

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The Straw Hat Players may have pivoted to a slimmed-down troupe and a new (non)-venue for their upcoming season. But in the grand tradition of show business, the shows must … and shall … go on.

The first of three musical production takes to a very different stage June 1-3, when six young actors perform “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” – not in the Center for the Arts, the MSUM facility they’ve brought to life for most of their 57 summers, but outside on the campus mall. A three-level portable stage is being constructed west of Livingston Lord Library, where an audience of up to 250 will take their seats in socially distanced clusters of folding chairs on the grass.

A cast of four takes the tri-level wooden stage June 8-10 for an evening saluting leisure suits, halter tops and platform shoes – “8-Track: The Sound of the ’70s in Concert.” The fast-paced musical is designed to tickle the boomers’ musical tastes with the sounds of the Bee Gees, Labelle, Marvin Gaye, the Carpenters, Marvin Gaye, the Doobie Brothers, the Emotions and more.

“Godspell” winds up the season June 15-17. All eight cast members stage the musical that took the world by storm 50 years ago featuring a heavenly host of hit songs. Like the first two shows, “Godspell” will be fully staged with professional sound and lights – though, since the 90-minute performances begin at 7:30, lighting will be more to direct attention than drama until the plays’ finales at sunset.

“The shows are all on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for a reason,” director Craig Ellingson points out. “That gives us every Friday in case a night is rained out.”

This summer season is one of a kind for Ellingson, who has spent more than 20 years as a director, choreographer and educator in the MSUM Theatre Arts department. The regionally famous theatre program has been shaken up by two life-changing events: Of course, the pandemic that forced cancellation of the 2020 season altogether,but also the even more life-changing news that it is scheduled to be eliminated in 2023.

Plans to revive the Straw Hat season, says Ellingson, began before Covid-19 precautions began to be loosened in recent days. “We didn’t know what to expect. Masked performers? Masked audience? It’s turned out to look like a much more normal approach in terms of staging, performance and the audience, but by the time we found that out, our plans were already on track.”

The most obvious adaptation for the times, next to the grass under theatre-goers’ feet, is the size of this year’s company. Most years, it includes up to 20 actors and eight technicians. The 2021 contingent is down to eight on stage and two technicians behind the scenes. All are in the process of being vaccinated, the director notes.

Given the plan for a smaller group, talent was picked from the pool of current students or those who graduated in 2020. “They missed out last year, so we wanted them to get their chance,” Ellingson says. Three alumni are on board along with five current majors.

They’ve approached set design differently, too. While the cast is rehearing the first show in the Center for the Arts, the university’s portable wooden stage will be moved to the quad and platforms added above it. The same set will be used for all three shows. After “You’re Perfect,” all rehearsals will move outside as well.

No season ticket sales are planned. Instead, past season subscribers were notified last week that they could reserve their tickets for each show. The box office opens to the general public next Monday. No walk-up tickets will be sold throughout the season because seating will be clustered each night to accommodate the size of individual groups in a spaced-out arrangement Ellingson dubs “row-esque.”

Despite the adjustments, he’s optimistic of the experience the company and audiences will share. “Limitations sometimes spark creativity,” he predicts.

As for the future of theatre arts at MSUM, he maintains that same optimistic outlook. Ongoing discussions have focused on possible realignment of at least some classes with the Entertainment Industries and Technologies program. “We’ve been talking about how to maintain the presence of performance on campus,” he says. “That’s where discussions are leading at the moment. Students learning to run technology and audio need to have performances to work with.

“Frankly, I think the move to eliminate theatre is short-sighted,” he continues. “It’s not all about jobs. The world of performance engages audiences and performers in serious discussions that can change the world.

“Theatre is much more visceral than TV or the movies. Live performance builds a sense of community in a way that other media cannot.”

But, he adds, “I do think it’s a long shot.” He points out that the situation right now is “just like theatre itself – lots of drama and tensions.” Yet, he says, “I’m not going to say it’s impossible. Otherwise, what’s the future of the university? A polytechnic school?”

Then, quoting “South Pacific,” he sums up his hopes for the future: “I’m just a cockeyed optimist.”

To purchase tickets for the Straw Hat Players’ productions, call the MSUM box office, 218-477-2271.

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