MOORHEAD — Even after decades in the theater, Craig Ellingson is still finding new experiences.

This week he’ll add another one to his list — staging outdoor productions — as Ellingson and Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Straw Hat Players kick off a shorter summer season on the campus mall.

Normally held in the school’s Delmar J. Hansen Theatre or the Gaede Stage, this year’s shows were moved outside due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Straw Hat Players members rehearse on the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus mall on Friday, May 28, 2021, for the musical "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." David Samson / The Forum
Straw Hat Players members rehearse on the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus mall on Friday, May 28, 2021, for the musical "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." David Samson / The Forum

Ellingson, who is directing this year’s three shows, says just getting back to working on any stage and in front of a live audience is a big emotional boost.

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“It feels amazing,” he says. ”There’s so much energy in the rehearsal hall. It’s more than wonderful to be back to something normal and comfortable.”

Things kick off Tuesday, June 1, through Thursday, June 3, with the romantic comedy, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” Jukebox musical “8-Track: The Sounds of the 70s in Concert” will run June 8-10, featuring groovy tunes by KC and the Sunshine Band, Bee Gees, The Carpenters and, of course, “The Hustle.” The season winds down June 15-17 with Stephen Schwartz’s classic take on biblical parables, “Godspell,” including the hit “Day by Day.”

Craig Ellingson leads choreography Friday, May 28, 2021, during Minnesota State University Moorhead Straw Hat Players rehearsal for the musical "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." David Samson / The Forum
Craig Ellingson leads choreography Friday, May 28, 2021, during Minnesota State University Moorhead Straw Hat Players rehearsal for the musical "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." David Samson / The Forum

The dates were announced shortly before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz relaxed coronavirus restrictions, which would have made it impossible to put on the shows indoors. Ellingson said it was too late to switch direction, and he's looking forward to working in the great outdoors.

“We’re forging ahead with theater under the stars,” he says.

After a year when people were largely cooped up in their homes, he says both performers and audiences will be looking forward to an outdoor venue.

“People are looking forward to the challenges and benefits of weather and just something different,” he says.

Craig Ellingson gives direction during Straw Hat Players' rehearsal for "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." David Samson / The Forum
Craig Ellingson gives direction during Straw Hat Players' rehearsal for "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." David Samson / The Forum

Tickets must be purchased at least 24 hours in advance, as there will be no sales at the door due to seating restrictions. This allows for seats to be arranged the day of the show to accommodate groups and social distancing. The outdoor arrangement will be more like a seated picnic as attendees can bring their own concessions and nonalcoholic drinks.

While previous seasons have included non-musicals, Ellingson says this year’s lineup stuck with song-and-dance pieces because they tend to sell better.

This year’s lineup is smaller, both in the number of shows and in the number of performers. While normally 25 or 30 people are hired, this year only 10 came on — seven current MSUM students and three alum.

MSUM announced last year that the school would be ending its theater program after all of the current students graduated. That, coupled with the loss of the 2020 Straw Hat season and only virtual audiences for the 2020-21 academic year productions, has made for a long, hard time away from the stage — and it makes this week’s return extra sweet.

“We’re really relishing these moments to engage in storytelling and impact other people’s lives,” Ellingson says. “When you know you’re called to be a storyteller, to come back to something so special, it’s so comfortable.”

He says those in the theater program are taking things, well, “Day by Day.”

“We’re going to do Straw Hat until they tell us we can’t do it anymore,” he says. “I think we’re all optimistic about what we’re doing now. You can’t play the ending. We’d all be sad knowing what happens in two years. We’re looking forward to getting back to old-fashioned ways of doing things, even if it’s a different routine.”

RELATED ARTICLE: MSUM alumni fight to keep theater program as possible cut looms

If you go

What: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 1, through Thursday, June 3

Where: MSUM campus mall, Moorhead

Info: Tickets are $25 and available at mnstate.edu/tickets; tickets must be purchased at least 24 hours in advance, as there will be no sales at the door due to seating restrictions.