ONU Theatre Original Production Nominated for 2021 Dove Award

Still nominated as Long Form Video of the Year.

One year ago, new professor and director of ONU Theatre Ashley Elizabeth Sarver '15/'18 MBA was preparing to start the fall semester at Olivet Nazarene University. Yesterday, she and the production team behind the original musical, Still: The Artistry & Life of Fanny J. Crosby Reimagined, were nominated for a Dove Award in the category of Long Form Video of the Year.

On Aug. 11, the nominations for the 52nd annual GMA Dove Awards were released, with directing and producing credits also given to Prof. Sarver and Joe Mantarian ’16 who filmed and edited the digital production. Still is nominated among giants in the industry: for KING & COUNTRY, Brandon Lake, Natalie Grant and Hillsong UNITED.

Prior to the 2020-21 academic year, ONU Theatre primarily produced well-circulated plays and musicals—everything from Shakespearean favorites to Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. However, due to pandemic restrictions for live audiences last fall, Prof. Sarver met with Dr. Don Reddick ’79, dean of the School of Music and Dr. Neal Woodruff ’91, director of music to consider alternative options to pursuing the rights and contracts to produce the anticipated spring musical, Singing in the Rain. Under the circumstances, Dr. Woodruff suggested that Prof. Sarver use her graduate school experience (an MFA in Directing from University of North Carolina – Greenville) to consider writing an original musical production. 

“I realized it probably was the best route to go because of costs,” Prof. Sarver recently reflected. “But it might also be the perfect year to take a risk and showcase an original work. People weren’t expecting anything at all, so I thought: let’s exceed their expectations and give them something new.”

With the support of Dr. Heather McLaughlin, chair of the Department of Communication, Prof. Sarver began the creative process of fleshing out story ideas with at creative team that initially included graduate assistant Helen Berdebes ’19/’21 MBA and choreographer Kelsie Davis ’19. The women wanted to modernize a true story with songs that existed in the public domain. The life of Fanny Crosby, the blind hymnist who wrote “Blessed Assurance” quickly came to mind. 

On Oct. 15, Prof. Sarver began to develop ideas for the musical. That night after rehearsing another show, she wrote the first three songs and wrote another the following night. From there, things snowballed. She quickly expanded the creative team with musicians Malik Temple ’16, junior Jayson Zorn, and Tommy Rankin ’19 as arrangers and orchestrators, to add their musical expertise in developing the sound of each song. Matt Steinacker ’98 was pivotal in creating a quality stage atmosphere as the sound designer and lighting designer to enhance the stage design created by Jackson Thornhill ’20. 

Prof. Sarver had previously written two full-length plays and one full-length musical, Song for Yvette, which originated from a graduate school grant that funded travel and research for writing an original production. That show will be fully mounted as a local production in spring 2022 with her new production company, ThirtyTwo 7 Studios. 

“I understand the phrase ‘God breathed’ now because of the process of writing Still,” Prof. Sarver said. “Practical experience does prepare you, but there is an element of God’s creativity coming through the project. He is the creative. It’s humbling to have Him use us at the right time.” 

Again, due to pandemic restrictions, the musical was only viewed live by a select preview audience. Joe Mantarian’s adept videography and editing skills resulted in a feature film that showcases the talent of the student performers. Since the premier of the film, hundreds of people have watched the show. Online tickets to see Still are still available through the end of the year at Olivet.edu/tickets

“The last year was tough, especially for the art,” he reflected. “The opportunity to create something unique, with a talented friend and former Olivet classmate, was very exciting in a very not-so-exciting time. In this business, it is a privilege just to work. To work with friends and very talented individuals—that makes it even better.”

Looking back on the process of writing and directing an original musical, Prof. Sarver is thankful for the experience, and humbled by the success.

“At the beginning of the year, I felt very passionate about introducing a new way of storytelling that was leading to truth—but at an industry professional standard. I didn’t realize at the beginning how many hurdles I would face—COVID, personal life changes, encouraging different people at the university to catch a vision. The vision now feels affirmed, especially with this nomination. Ultimately, my goal for ONU Theatre is to tell stories that lead people to Jesus and His love, and I think this will be a turning point for theatre at Olivet and in the community.”

Joe shared a similar sentiment. “Most people wouldn’t expect something like this from a small Christian school in a small Midwestern town, but I think the message is pretty clear here that you don’t need big names and big cameras to tell big stories, and tell them well!”

The Dove Awards will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 19, at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.

For more information about the Department of Theatre and all other areas of study, contact the Office of Admissions at admissions@olivet.edu or 800-648-1463.

Photography: Joe Mantarian
Published 8/12/2021
LB