MOORHEAD — Going into what would normally be the last week of Straw Hat Players, Craig Ellingson couldn’t help but feel a little lost without Minnesota State University Moorhead’s summer theater program.

“It feels strange,” says the director of theater arts at MSUM. “To have a summer when Straw Hat isn’t part of your life feels like something is missing.”

The program was canceled for the summer due to the coronavirus pandemic — but the future of Straw Hat, as well as that of MSUM's Theatre Arts program, is cloudy.

In mid-April, MSUM President Anne Blackhurst announced it was one of 10 programs that could be cut as the school tries to compensate for an expected $6 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2022. A final plan will be announced by the 15th day of fall classes.

Craig Ellingson, right, starred in a 2010 Straw Hat Players production of "The Music Man" with Devon Solwold and Klarissa Pudwill. Forum file photo
Craig Ellingson, right, starred in a 2010 Straw Hat Players production of "The Music Man" with Devon Solwold and Klarissa Pudwill. Forum file photo

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“In the meantime, we continue to fight. We are doing as much as we can internally and externally,” Ellingson says.

He and alumni have mounted the Save MSUM Theatre and Straw Hat Player movement, hoping to do just that by raising $100,000 for scholarships and recruiting an additional 15 theater arts majors each year.

“When it became apparent that MSUM was going to cut the theater department, that awakened some passion in thousands of students and alumni,” says Paul Meyers, who graduated from the program in 1967. “An awful lot of people want to help it flourish for the next 60 years."

Meyers and Ellingson are administrators on the Save MSUM Theatre and Straw Hat Players Facebook page, which has more than 800 members.

Concerned alumni and members of the community started a letter-writing campaign encouraging MSUM to spare the program.

“The theater program trains (students) to meet challenges and create things. I wouldn’t be where I was today if it weren’t for the theater training I had,” says Meyers, president and financial advisor at Legacy Wealth Management.

While he says raising the $100,000 goal is within reach, recruiting students for this fall is “an uphill challenge” since classes start in two months. The program has been offering virtual open house tours through June to give prospective students and incoming freshmen a look around.

Anne Blackhurst, president of Minnesota State University Moorhead. Special to The Forum
Anne Blackhurst, president of Minnesota State University Moorhead. Special to The Forum

Members of the Save MSUM Theatre and Straw Hat Players group have also met with President Blackhurst to discuss their concerns. She says they talked about enrollment, program sustainability and factors in the final decision making process.

“It’s a delicate balance at this point,” Blackhurst says.

She adds that the group’s efforts have made an impact.

“It’s extremely gratifying to see how many alumni are invested in the growth of the theater program,” she says.

Last Thursday, June 25, former students offered their own virtual testimonials during MSUM’s online Theatre Arts Gala. The Facebook broadcast featured alumni acting monologues, singing and dancing to show their love for the program.

Ellingson says hearing those voices is what the theater department is all about and amid current events, voices need to be heard.

“It’s people’s stories that are fueling protests. People’s stories helping people out during this pandemic. Stories are the light at the end of the tunnel, even if you feel you are on a dark journey now,” he says.

Blackhurst says she misses watching Straw Hat Players this summer.

“All of us in Fargo-Moorhead are missing theater. I’m certainly feeling that void,” she says.

“Straw Hat and summer are synonymous.”

Ellingson is hopeful to see her in the seats for summers to come.

Meyers is more certain.

“I am 100 percent confident we’re going to be successful. I’ve seen passion from alumni, faculty and students,” he says. “We don’t look at it anymore as saving the theater program. We don’t look at it as staying afloat. We look at it as moving forward.”