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'All Hands on Deck': Straw Hat keeps ensemble rotating roles

The cast of "How to Talk Minnesotan: The Musical," (from left) Seth Cline, Bryana Thorson, Chase Donaldson, Skyla Rautenkranz, Michael Kalpakoff and Noah Roddy. Special to The Forum1 / 4
Sarah Schulz, seen here as Belle in the 2017 Trollwood production of "Beauty and the Beast," moves to MSUM's Straw Hat Players this summer. Forum file photo2 / 4
Seth Cline (lower right) returns to Straw Hat Players this summer. Forum file photo3 / 4
Craig Ellingson (right) starred in Straw Hat's "The Music Man" in 2010 and directs three of this summer's performances. Forum file photo4 / 4

MOORHEAD — For the last few summers, Sarah Schulz knew what she'd be doing when school got out — working at Trollwood Performing Arts School.

Last year, she starred as Belle in "Beauty and the Beast," and the year before starred as Ariel in "The Little Mermaid." Now heading into her sophomore year at Oklahoma City University, she's graduated from Trollwood, but area fans can still see the young singer on a local stage this summer.

Schulz is one of the roughly 50 cast and crew members enrolled in Minnesota State University Moorhead's Straw Hat Players. The summer stock troupe kicks off its 55th season tonight with the first of its four shows in as many weeks, "How to Talk Minnesotan: The Musical."

"This is such a different experience than Trollwood," Schulz says. "In Trollwood, you have two months to work on one show. With Straw Hat, you have six weeks to work on four."

Fast pace

Those involved usually only work on two or three shows, says Craig Ellingson, director of theater at MSUM. He says the ensemble consists of MSUM students, visiting participants and performers raised in the Fargo-Moorhead area and returning home for the summer, like Schulz.

The appeal of the program, he says, is the experience of producing quality shows at a fast pace.

"The ability to hit the road running, memorize lines quickly, memorize blocking, picking up choreography, all of that skill set is challenged a lot during Straw Hat because they don't have any downtime," he says.

Participants work for a little pay or class credit, but Ellingson says the real payoff is not just in the productions, but also the confidence and drive it gives the cast and crew going forward.

"Our students that do Straw Hat tend to be more successful during the academic year because their skill set is challenged," he says. "They also understand the importance of putting something together quickly, but doing it well."

The pace may be fast, but precautions are taken to prevent burnouts. The ensemble rotates jobs with actors on stage for one production, then building sets, hanging lights or making costumes on another show.

On Thursday, May 24, with just five days until opening night, the cast and crew was prepared for a morning run-through of "How to Talk Minnesotan," then practicing music and choreography for "All Hands on Deck!" in the afternoon. During the evening session, they worked on "The Last Five Years."

"Craig gives us the opportunity to tackle every aspect of theater within all of the shows in a very short period of time. It's all-day theater, which is what I love," says Seth Cline.

"Summer stock truly is a collaborative art form," Ellingson says. "A director can't do everything, especially with two weeks of putting it together."

Busy summer

It's the second season of Straw Hat for Cline, a MSUM junior, who last summer appeared in "Forbidden Broadway" and "Hello Dolly."

This summer, he's starring as Ed in "How to Talk Minnesotan," appearing in "All Hands on Deck" and playing Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls."

Schulz works tech on "How to Talk Minnesotan," but performs in the musical revue, "All Hands on Deck!" She's not on the stage for "The Last Five Years," but stars as Sister Sarah Brown in "Guys and Dolls."

"It's a role I've dreamed about," the young actress says.

"The audiences at Straw Hat really crave the good, old-fashioned stuff," Ellingson says.

Still, he likes to add a contemporary piece — like "The Last Five Years" — here and there to appeal to other theatergoers.

He should know. Not only has he been involved in production of the summer shows for 20 years, he's appeared in a handful, including playing Professor Harold Hill in 2010's "The Music Man." That show also featured Schulz in her Straw Hat debut and gave her a taste of something that she knew she wanted more.

"I like the opportunity to work at a high pace with a bunch of people who love what they do and be surrounded by people who love to do that as well," she says.

If you go

What: MSUM Straw Hat Players' "How to Talk Minnesotan: The Musical"

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 29, through Friday, June 1

Where: Hansen Theatre, Roland Dille Center for the Arts, MSUM

Info: Tickets range from $12 - $27; or 218-477-2271

Other shows

"All Hands on Deck!" — June 5-8

"The Last Five Years" — June 12-15

"Guys and Dolls" — June 19-22