On Saturday, March 30, 2019, Maryville College’s Theatre Department put on their first two performances of “Sturdy as a Rock: Our Bicentennial Story,” a musical written and directed by Lenny Lively as part of his Senior Thesis. The production tells an interesting tale about Maryville College’s history including Isaac Anderson’s role in founding the college.
A theatre and religion double major, Lively said, “I always knew I wanted my thesis to combine both of my majors, and I knew I wanted to write a play with religious themes.” The timing of Lively’s culmination of work couldn’t be any better either.
“Being the bicentennial year, there was no better time to tell the story of Maryville College’s religious foundation as the Southern and Western Theological Seminary,” said Lively. Of course, writing such a historical play based on important events presumably involved a very in-depth research process.
Lively said, “I had to spend a lot of time in the archives learning from every source we had about Isaac Anderson and the early history of the college.” Lively also looked at information on two previous plays about Anderson.
“One play called ‘Once Upon a Greener Hill’ was performed for our sesquicentennial, and it was written by Paul Crabtree who founded the Cumberland County Playhouse,” said Lively. That playhouse is also where Lively fell in love with and learned about theatre as a child.
Practically an expert on Anderson, Lively said, “I was surprised to learn how widely respected Isaac Anderson was in his own time. He rode a 150-mile preaching circuit once a month on horseback to preach to the most remote mountain communities, all while pastoring two churches in Maryville and Knoxville and running the only educational institution in Blount County.”
Such a fact gives a lot of insight into just how devoted to his cause and mission Anderson was. As Lively was creating “Sturdy as a Rock,” it evolved into more of a musical, so he actually asked his sister and fellow Maryville College student, Lindsey Lively, if she would like to write an original score. Of course, she did just that.
“What she’s come up with has been amazing,” said Lenny Lively. Having been an audience member, I couldn’t agree more. All of the songs seemed to fit in effortlessly to the story and the dialogue. Many of them only had subtle instrumental backgrounds, but it allowed for the voices of the actors singing to shine.
The most upbeat song, about building the college “sturdy as a rock,” felt so enthusiastic and truly inspiring. At the same time, a few songs accompanying the sadder moments of the story could have brought tears to one’s eyes—in a good way. As the performance moved through Anderson’s initial success, some unfortunate setbacks, and Maryville College’s eventual re-opening, the four narrators, played by Cameron Freshour, Haylee Wilson, Christopher Rodriguez, and Brianna Bakoledis, all did an excellent job at personifying multiple characters throughout. Isaac Anderson’s character, played by Sean Sterling, and Thomas Jefferson Lamar, played by Joshua Woods, appeared to make a great team.
Though this historical story felt a little serious, watching Sterling and Woods pretend to ride a horse as Anderson and Lamar often broke some of the tension with a good laugh. Anderson’s wife, Flora Anderson played by Michaela McCarthy, also frequently provided calming wisdom to Sterling as Anderson during the trials of getting the college off the ground. Once the show was over, I believe it’s safe to say that many of us felt a real sense of Maryville College pride.
“I studied and learned from past productions, but ‘Sturdy as a Rock’ is a completely new theatrical take on our college’s history. When the show closes, it will be bittersweet. This has been a two-year-long process that has taught me many things,” said Lenny Lively. His efforts certainly aren’t lost, for “Sturdy as a Rock” has made the history of Maryville College even more memorable. It’s definitely one for the books.