Diane Gardner and Allen Sellars enjoy being part of a big family that comes together for a reunion every July under the stars in the amphitheatre at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton.
Gardner and Sellars have both been involved for several years with the annual production of “Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals.” They started another season with the outdoor drama this past Thursday.
In 2011, Sellars and Gardner portrayed historic couple William and Lydia Bean.
Charged with the responsibility of bringing two historic figures to life, Gardner and Sellars did their homework, researching the lives of the Beans to ensure historical accuracy for their roles.
“They were one of the first couples to settle in the area,” Gardner said.
Some of the other details they discovered about the couple included their ownership of a store in Bean Station and the fact that they became the parents of 10 children.
Gardner noted that the role of Lydia brought some automatic drama.
“My character was kidnapped by disgruntled Indians,” Gardner said.
She explained that Nancy Ward, a Cherokee leader, saved Lydia Bean from being burned at the stake by her captors.
“Once you are assigned a character, you do your research,” Sellars said. “So, we kind of did our own homework.”
Sellars started participating in “Liberty!” in 2009, and Gardner took on her first role in the long-running outdoor drama in 2010.
In his very first role with the drama, Sellars won the lead role as John Carter, an important leader in the early history of Elizabethton and Carter County. To date, Gardner’s biggest role has been portraying Lydia Bean. Her first year with the drama saw her in the role of Jacob Brown’s wife.
She has also put her talents to work in other areas involved with the successful staging of the drama.
“I have the gift of gab,” she said. “So, I have greeted people as they arrive at the museum. It’s so nice to meet people who come from so many places and who appreciate the history and beauty of Carter County.”
Gardner worked for many years in the country music industry in Nashville, where she founded Huckleberry Publishing Company.
“When I first started, I met all the country stars,” she said. “I still have a lot of pictures of all these stars.”
She got her first job in the entertainment industry writing articles for the Elizabethton STAR in the 1970s that featured her interviews with entertainers performing at the Appalachian Fair in Gray.
“My first article was with the Oak Ridge Boys,” Gardner recalled.
She enjoyed her work in the entertainment industry, but upon retirement decided to move back to Carter County.
Sellars also recently relocated to Carter County, partly because of the long-distance commute from his home in North Carolina each season for “Liberty!” practices and performances.
“It was a 200-mile round trip, or 3,000 miles in a season,” Sellars said.
Coming back to Northeast Tennessee was also a homecoming of sorts for the Washington County native.
He studied drama and speech at Johnson Bible College, now known as Johnson University, in Knoxville.
Sellars said he has been enamored for many years of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and its attention to the importance of history.
He would also like to grow more into the role of John Carter. “I’d like to continue to explore the facets of John Carter,” he said.
Sellars is also looking forward to some changes with this year’s production.
“We’re getting a new script,” he said, adding that the some additional historic figures will be added to the drama.
SSSHP Manager Jennifer Bauer and two park employees, Chad Bogart and Jason Davis, worked together on the re-write.
“We’re also getting a new musical score,” Sellars said.
Both Gardner and Sellars are excited about the expansion of music in the production. They are both singers, although injuries in a car accident now prevent Gardner from singing like she once did.
“I’ve done a ton of church singing, as well as some lounge singing,” Sellers said.
“Allen’s an accomplished singer,” Gardner said of her fellow performer.
During the 2011 “Liberty!” season Sellars got to perform a group song with fellow cast members during the play.
Gardner will also have some additional duties this year, including taking care of the drama’s many costumes. Part of her job involves making sure the costumes are historically accurate.
From April until the last performance in July will be a busy time for those involved with “Liberty!”
“It’s almost like having a family reunion,” Gardner said. “Friends get together like a homecoming. It gives me such pleasure to see many people come back every year.”
She added that not only is the production a lot of fun, it also a worthwhile community project for all the people involved.
Sellars agreed. “There’s the big family camaraderie aspect,” he said. “The stage life is fun. I like being part of something larger than myself while passing on the story of local history.”
They both agree that the history of the region’s role in the Revolutionary War is one that deserves a wider audience.
“We hear so much about the role other parts of the country played in winning our freedoms,” Gardner said. “But the role played by the Southern part of the country, such as Tennessee, is not as widely known.”
Some of the events that took place in Northeast Tennessee and the southeastern United States proved pivotal in the struggle for independence.
“Defeating Ferguson at King’s Mountain was a turning point,” Sellars noted.
He added that, as far as the British were concerned, the battle at King’s Mountain in South Carolina was a “back-breaker.”
The involvement of the Overmountain Men, who assembled at Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals to march to King’s Mountain, helped turn the tide against the British.
Those contributions are part of the motivation for Sellars and Gardner to maintain their involvement with the long-running outdoor drama.
“People with ancestors in this area can be proud,” Gardner said.
She looks at “Liberty!” as a valuable history lesson for preserving the stories of the people who banded together to fight for freedom.
Of course, it’s also crucial that they can tell the story in as engrossing a manner as possible.
Thanks to some talented individuals, the production also boasts top-notch pyrotechnics and the Fort Watauga battle scenes choreographed by Austin Crum and Chad Bogart.
“The pyrotechnics are always awesome,” Sellars noted. “Audiences always ‘ooh and ahh’ for the special effects.”
At some point in the future, Sellars said he would like to try his hand at directing “Liberty!”
Gardner said she is happy with any role in the drama. “I just like getting to play a part,” she said.
In this year’s “Liberty!” production, Gardner will take on the role of Esther Doak, the wife of Rev. Samuel Doak. Rev. Doak is known for his sermon and prayer delivered at Sycamore Shoals on Sept. 26, 1780, prior to the mustering of forces that marched to South Carolina to confront the British at the Battle of King’s Mountain.
Sellars will portray Chester McKenzie, a fictional character, but one for which Sellars has spun an entire history.
“Chester’s a hard-working man, dedicated husband and a good father,” Sellars said.
In the history Sellars has created for the character, he also has a wife, children and grandchildren. Chester has also seen much fighting by the time he marched off at age 70 to fight along with other Overmountain Men at the Battle of King’s Mountain.
His story also ends at that pivotal battle. “At King’s Mountain, Chester gave his life while pushing another soldier out of the way of a British shot that would have killed the other soldier,” Sellars noted. “That’s the kind of man Chester was — a brave warrior, skilled fighter and, most of all, a patriot of the first order.”
To learn more about the story of Chester and other characters, attend one of the remaining performances of “Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals” this July.
The 34th performance season of “Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals” opened Thursday, July 12, and will run for two more weekends (Thursday-Saturday) in the amphitheater at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton.
Tickets are $12 for adults; $10 for seniors; $9 for students; and children five and under are admitted free. For more information, call (423) 543-5808 or visit www.liberty-drama.com.
The yearly production is sponsored by the Friends of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area. The production will offer combination “dinner and show” tickets for one price each Saturday during the run of “Liberty!” These combination tickets are $22. Tickets for children ages 6 to 12 are $15. These tickets will provide a meal, pre-show entertainment and admission to the drama. Reservations are necessary for the “dinner and a show” tickets. To make reservations, call (423) 543-5808.
Performances are held each evening, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, beginning at 7:30 against the backdrop of the re-creation of Fort Watauga.