MOORHEAD — The COVID-19 pandemic has forced theatrical stages nationwide to go dark, but the theater program at Minnesota State University Moorhead was pushed further into the darkness when it was announced the program would be cut in a few years to save the school money.

There may not be a light at the end of the tunnel, but the program is making its voice heard this semester with a series of plays addressing issues of social justice.

MSUM theater students will stream a reading of “Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15.

The show is actually nine short works, each by a different author, each taking a unique look at same-sex marriage. Some are dramatic, and some are comedic, but Craig Ellingson, MSUM’s director of theater, says all of them, as well as each production this semester, helps start a dialogue.

“We had to rethink everything for this year, and my idea was to use theater as a conversation-starter,” he says.

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The season opened in September with a staged reading of “American Son,” a look at how a biracial mother and father react to their son being held in police custody after a traffic stop.

Theater students at Minnesota State University Moorhead staged a dramatic reading of "American Son" in September. Special to The Forum
Theater students at Minnesota State University Moorhead staged a dramatic reading of "American Son" in September. Special to The Forum

Other titles slated for the semester include “Roe,” a look at the effects of the case that legalized abortions on the people who fought for it, and “Six Years Old,” about a young girl who identifies as a boy and how the adults around her respond.

Even the traditional children’s theater productions in November reflect the real world with four different shows, each appropriate for an age group from grade school through high school, dealing with everything from expressing emotions to racial equality.

“We’re trying to let people know that theater, especially during this time, is not just entertainment, but educational,” Ellingson says.

“Standing on Ceremony” was written in 2013, two years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the same fundamental right to marry as opposite-sex couples.

Knowing the date of writing is important in the case of some of the storylines, like one that features two men moving to Iowa so their marriage can be recognized. Iowa legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.

“This idea of what could happen, you don’t know what state you’ll live in because of the person you love,” says Ellingson, who married his husband two years ago.

He says a recent statement by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas on behalf of himself and fellow Associate Justice Samuel Alito criticizing the 2015 ruling suggests the struggle for equality may not be entirely in the past. That, coupled with outrage in the region after an LGBTQ+ rainbow flag was flown outside the city hall in Minot, N.D., and public criticism leveled at an openly lesbian city council member there, make staging “Standing on Ceremony” all the more timely.

“We think we’re further evolved than we actually are as far as social issues,” Ellingson says, noting that October is Coming Out Month.

Michael Kalpakoff, a senior getting his degree in theater at MSUM, serves as the assistant director on the play. He identifies as an LGBTQ ally and says the variety in the short works present different views that help further conversations and clarify misconceptions.

“Some of these are caricatures and they seem almost a little too real,” he says. “Even in 2020 some people assume there is a gay agenda, though they just want rights like everybody else.”

Ellingson says having students voice discussions others may have held a decade ago helps underscore awareness in a generational shift and also inform today’s students what the generation before them went through.

“People of a certain age have always grown up with being out and people of a certain age grew up with a struggle over whether they should come out,” he says. “I’m afraid that idea of going back into the closet is being discussed. Marriage equality has to be there. For us in the LGBTQ+ community, understanding what love and marriage is needs to be discussed and not just tolerated, but accepted.”

If you go

What: “Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays”

When: Streaming at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15

Info: Tickets are free but need to be reserved at https://mnstatetickets.universitytickets.com