MOORHEAD — While some in the local theater community are optimistic about saving summer, others are having to face the tough reality of cancellations this year amid the COVID-19 crisis.

For theater students at Moorhead State University Moorhead, that includes no Straw Hat Players this summer.

Director Craig Ellingson announced the cancellation on April 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic, saying in a written statement, "We are incredibly sad we won't be able to share our summer with you, but our first priority is the health and safety of you, our family."

While that announcement said the summer theater troupe would be back "bigger and better than ever" in 2021, MSUM officials have since outlined a proposed plan to address the university's $6 million budget shortfall in the 2022 fiscal year that would include ending the Theatre Arts program. Students now enrolled in the several programs marked for elimination would be able to complete their degrees, MSUM leaders said last week.

That means this summer without Straw Hat Players could be a sign of the times for theater arts entirely at the university.

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“I believe much of the focus was on the numbers, including majors and cost of the program, versus the number of community and campus attendance" of the theater program's annual productions, Ellingson says.

A shock

As budget cuts loom, many students face unknowns as their program, its faculty and the future of arts at the university are in jeopardy.

Straw Hat Players closed out the 2019 season with "Annie."  Dave Arntson / Minnesota State University Moorhead / Special to The Forum
Straw Hat Players closed out the 2019 season with "Annie." Dave Arntson / Minnesota State University Moorhead / Special to The Forum

Set to graduate this spring with a musical theater degree, Morgan Kempton lost more than just a summer on the stage with Straw Hat Players — she also had to give up the thrill of being in the director’s seat. She was also supposed to assist in directing and choreographing the musical “Spring Awakening” this spring, which was supposed to prepare her for a summer of directing her very own production.

"It was very obvious to me before they announced the cancellation of the season that it was not going to happen, but I was still shocked to hear it said out loud,” Kempton says.

Like many students in the program, she saw Straw Hat as a way to grow her skills as an artist, but now she'll no longer get that chance due to the pandemic that has canceled events and prompted universities to switch to online learning.

“When it comes down to it I suppose I will really miss the people,” Kempton says. “We spend all day together, every day for six weeks, so to say we get close is kind of an understatement.”

Morgan Kempton played Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," her very first production at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Special to The Forum
Morgan Kempton played Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," her very first production at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Special to The Forum

The uncertainty has many with ties to the MSUM theater arts community looking back with fond memories, wondering if it is too late to save the program that brought them joy. A former director for 12 years, Jim Bartruff arrived at MSUM in 1990 working first as an associate director and left in 2004. He's retiring this June from Emporia State University in Kansas, concluding 41 years of teaching in higher education.

“I worked with a number of wonderful people, faculty, staff and administrators,” Bartruff says. “But most especially, I had the privilege of helping to train our current generation of artists and art leaders. They are the living embodiment of MSUM Theatre and will be long into the future.”

His program at Emporia State faces similar disruptions due to the pandemic, including the cancellation of its 66th consecutive summer theater season, saying it was a sad day, but news about the suspension or closure of MSUM's theater program is "even sadder."

Another leader of the program, David Wheeler, arrived at MSUM in 1986, first teaching theater history and eventually directing Straw Hat a decade later. With a new doctorate and his first child on the way, he expected only to stay a couple of years before planning to return to the West Coast, but he settled down nonetheless, devoting about 30 years to the university.

"This seems unbelievable to me," he says about this summer's cancellation and impending end of theater at MSUM. “But then, there are many things about the times in which we find ourselves that seem unbelievable, but are shockingly true.”

He also wonders if there will be other theater arts casualties in Fargo-Moorhead.

“What I always loved about Straw Hat was the laughter,” Wheeler says. He particularly remembers “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare… Abridged,” saying, “The play had three madmen for actors who improvised their way through sold-out performances. The summer audiences could hardly breathe they laughed so hard.”

The cast of the catastrophe film spoof, "Disaster!" Dave Arntson / Minnesota State University Moorhead / Special to The Forum
The cast of the catastrophe film spoof, "Disaster!" Dave Arntson / Minnesota State University Moorhead / Special to The Forum

The test of putting up a 40-person musical in just three weeks was exactly the challenge that Jennifer Tuttle needed to prove she had what it took to direct.

“I went to the MSUM Theatre Arts program as a brand-new teacher,” says Tuttle, who now works as an assistant professor of theater at The City College of New York. “It literally changed my life. The faculty, including Craig Ellingson, Ricky Greenwell and David Wheeler, were unbelievably generous colleagues. They mentored and guided me in my first three years of teaching, trusting me to teach a large variety of classes.”

However, without serious changes to proposed budget cuts at MSUM, this could be the final fleeting moments of a program spanning 57 years.

“The arts and humanities explore the ideas of what make us human,” Ellingson says. “I believe a theater program is vital on every college campus, as it brings forth not only entertainment, but also allows for important conversations about the world at large on many different levels. Without this element, I am of the opinion that many students’ educational experiences will be less transformative here at MSUM.”

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.