These days, Founders Square is best known as the Saturday venue for the Maryville Farmers Market, and it’s easy to assume that most locals who shop there for fresh produce have no clue that they’re walking on hallowed ground.
For the first several decades of its existence, Maryville College was “first based ‘in a little shanty of a house’ in downtown Maryville and later in a cluster of buildings on a half-acre lot on what would become known as Broadway a couple of blocks” from New Providence Presbyterian Church. Isaac Anderson, credited as the founder of Maryville College — which got its start as Southern and Western Theological Seminary — came to Blount County in 1811 as an eager young minister, determined to produce more men of God for what was then still the frontier.
Eight years later, his dream was realized when his seminary opened for prospective students in downtown Maryville, and this weekend, a new Maryville College Theatre Department production will trace the development of the institution from its beginnings to the move to its present-day location after the Civil War.
Titled “Sturdy As a Rock,” it’s the culmination of a year of research and work by Lenny Lively, an MC senior who wrote and will direct the production, which takes place Saturday and Sunday at the Clayton Center for the Arts.
“The play is not just the story of Isaac Anderson, but it’s also the story of the early college,” Lively told The Daily Times recently. “Maryville College has had two campuses over the course of its life, and this is the story of the first campus, located in downtown Maryville in Founders Square. ‘Sturdy As a Rock’ traces the college’s journey from its foundation in 1819 through Isaac Anderson’s death; to the Civil War, when it was closed; to its eventual re-founding in 1865 by Thomas Jefferson Lamar. The play ends when the college has been relocated to its present campus, with the erection of Anderson Hall. It tells the story of the school before our school.”
It’s something of a personal endeavor for Lively, whose father, Larry, grew up in Blount County and attended Maryville High School. Lively himself was raised in Pikeville, but in the first grade, he took part in his first theatrical production and has been in love with the stage ever since, he said.
“I originally started with tap dance classes, and I just fell in love with that — learning to dance for shows and being in dance numbers and ensemble numbers and musicals really just led me to doing every single show I possibly could and learning everything I possibly could,” he said.
Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he was a fixture at the Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville, and even after coming to Maryville College, from which he’ll graduate this spring, he’s continued to work there as an actor and a stage technician.
“I just love the culture of theater,” he said. “It always felt like home to me because of being raised, so to speak, at the Cumberland County Playhouse. The schedule of it felt like home to me.”
Maryville College, he said, gave him a wide latitude for his passion. The school’s smaller size has meant more opportunities in front of audiences, and he’s already acted in one play this year — “Boeing, Boeing,” the February farce staged by the Division of Fine Arts. Last fall, he played the role of King Midas in the adaptation of “Metamorphoses,” and he was the Cat in the Hat for the musical “Seussical” during his freshman year.
“One of the things about Maryville College Theatre is that you get a lot more on-stage experience than at a larger school like the University of Tennessee, where you’re competing with graduate students for roles,” he said. “Here at Maryville, I get the opportunity to write and direct an entire show, which is a unique experience in theater education.”
When it came time for his senior thesis, he wanted to synthesize both of his majors, theater and religion, into a single project. Given the religious focus of the institution’s early years, and the fact that Maryville College is celebrating its bicentennial this year, a play that tells the history of the college seemed like an ideal subject, he said.
“The early history is inseparably tied to religion and Presbyterianism,” he said.
He spent much of last semester in the Maryville College Archives, working with longtime administrator Martha Hess, who likely knows more about the history of the college than anyone. He didn’t start writing on the play — with the help of Heather McMahon, associate professor of theater, and playwriting instructor Lisa Soland — until he had absorbed “every single biographical account of Isaac Anderson I could find,” he said.
“Research was probably the hardest part of this whole process — really knowing the clear and full story of what historically happened so you can make a nice, dramatic story out of it,” he said. “There were lots of little facts I found interesting, but I really liked his message of ‘disinterested benevolence.’ That was sort of the secondary motto of his life — you should do good for everyone, but not because of personal gain.
“He felt you should be disinterested in your benevolence toward all and do it wholly for the good of society and not for your own sake. I think that’s a powerful message for today, and a core principle that’s stayed constant in the story and history of Maryville College since its beginning.”
And to carry that message to the masses, it’s been a team effort, he added. He’s worked closely with the play’s musical director — his sister, MC junior Lindsey Lively. Her music helps tell the story, and because of their shared upbringing in theatrical and musical settings, they share a creative vocabulary that serves the narrative, he added.
And she’s not the only MC student who will help bring “Sturdy As a Rock” to the stage, he said. From the cast itself — featuring junior Sean Sterling as Anderson himself and freshman Joshua Woods as Lamar — to the stagehands and technicians who have put together the set, it’s an entirely student-designed and -acted production.
“Everyone on this production team, down to the graphic designer, is a Maryville College student, and I think it’s really something that these students have put this together on their own to celebrate our bicentennial and our history. The scenery I’m most excited about is that we’re basically recreating Anderson Hall in the theater: We have a platform in the shape of it, and we’ve built a replica of the bell tower and hung it above the stage, so where the actors are performing, the play is literally within Anderson Hall. We have some really nice backdrops graciously provided by the Cumberland County Playhouse, and we’re going to have clothes of the period for it, as well as some really interesting, kind of abstract lighting, for the show.”
And all of it tells the story of a circuit-riding preacher whose restlessness of spirit and dedication to spirituality led him to establish an institution that’s intrinsically tied to the county in which it was born and still thrives.
“What I would like for people to take from this was that Isaac Anderson was not just the founder of Maryville College,” Lively said. “In his day he was the spiritual and social leader of Maryville, Tenn. Before Blount County got public schools, he was one of the sole educators in Blount County, and he didn’t just have a school — he had a college to prepare students for seminary, a preparatory school that functioned more like a high school to get students ready for the college and the seminary itself. He founded three schools, all for the betterment of the citizens of Maryville and Blount County.”