From 1975 to 1998, Johnson City was home to a world-renowned theater ensemble that traveled all over the region — and overseas — performing more than 20 original plays about the history, legacy and concerns about the people in Upper East Tennessee before disbanding in the late nineties.
Even after breaking up, though, The Road Company’s legacy lives on in Johnson City and the Southeast.
Founded by Massachusetts native Bob Leonard, The Road Company did more than become a successful theater company — they became Upper East Tennessee.
“The Road Company let people know we were doing theater here and that (the region) was important and our story was important,” said former Road Company member Ed Snodderly. “It was the creative force to create theater from our region, and it be real — not the need to go to Broadway.”
Leonard, now a professor of directing and performing at Virginia Tech, founded The Road Company after developing an interest in performing original works for rural populations. His first production with what would become known as The Road Company was about The State of Franklin, which is what prompted him to move to Johnson City.
“I had a very active imagination about the people who had been there 200 years before me,” Leonard said. “Really what I was interested in was ‘how do we develop public dialogue — how can we take the things that people really deeply care about and deepen the conversation?”
“The Road Company gave me an opportunity to find my own artistic voice,” Leonard said. “I think of Johnson City as my artistic home.”
The performance “Echoes and Postcards,” however, would go on to be one of their most successful plays, taking them on a national tour and also to Russia. That play also led Snodderly and Eugene Wolf to form The Brother Boys, a musical duo still performs every so often.
The Road Company, however couldn’t overcome a series of funding cuts at the federal level, which led to its breakup. Both former Road Company actress Christine Murdock and Snodderly said they just “couldn’t sustain it,” but pointed to Leonard as the big reason they were able to last as long as they did.
“Bob Leonard, he’s just a really good director, person and he held it all together,” Snodderly said. “It was a really well-run organization, as best as it could be run once funding got cut.”
“Bob was absolutely brilliant, all sorts of people I know in theater would love to do what he did and he kept it going,” said Murdock.
Still, the legacy of The Road Company is far from lost to the sands of time. In 2015, Leonard and Snodderly — with help from others — performed a read through of “Echoes and Postcards,” and Leonard also mentioned he sometimes gets students in his program who’ve been influenced by The Road Company’s plays.
Other members of The Road Company have gone on to write and perform their own productions, keeping the legacy alive.
Perhaps more importantly though, The Road Company illustrated that people from Upper East Tennessee are important and their stories matter. Snodderly says the company was about showing people from this area that they don’t need to look outside for validation, while Murdock called the community The Road Company built “very special.”
“We all miss it, and I think the community misses it too,” said Snodderly.
It’s hard to know if a theater company like The Road Company could even exist in 2019, but if they were still performing, Leonard has a good idea what type of work they’d be doing.
He called the current state of the country “very divided, contentious and non-constructive,” saying the values he holds as “country” are the understanding of each person’s own struggle and respect for each other.
“I would want to be making plays in Johnson City with the Road Company that would be exploring and celebrating those values in the context of the kind of struggle we’re having with our democracy,” he said.