Take Your Act Outdoors? The Forest Awaits
UNC dramatic arts lecturer David Adamson ’ 78
(MFA, ’ 79 LICDA) is a fan of outdoor drama
and often takes his acting classes to the Forest
Theatre to practice “big, declarative Shakespeare
speeches” and Greek plays. In 2003, he directed a performance of As You Like It in the theater.
The site’s atmosphere suits Shakespeare, he says. But
the outdoor venue presents challenges not encountered
in the University’s more technically equipped indoor
theaters. The Forest remains a lovely spot, tucked against
Battle Woods on the eastern edge of the campus, but it
also wears the forlorn look of the unkempt.
Once a primary venue for performing arts at Carolina, it has seen both its popularity and its structural
integrity decline in recent decades.
Now, efforts by the N.C. Botanical Garden, which
assumed management of the theater and surrounding
Battle Park in 2004, hold the possibility of breathing
new life into the old stones.
“It’s so rich with history,” said Jonah Garson, a rising
junior and a longtime Chapel Hill resident whose Single
Shot Theatre Company staged Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the theater in August 2006.“It’s inexcusable to let
something go by the wayside like that.”
Accounts of the theater’s early years vary, but Scott
Parker ’ 71 (MA) at UNC’s Institute for Outdoor Drama
said one of the first productions on the “grassy hillside in
Battle Park” was a 1917 performance of Surrender to the
Enemy by Paul Green ’ 21. Two years later, the Forest
Theatre was landscaped, and the Carolina Playmakers
began performing annual shows there.
Stone walls and trees were added later, and in 1943, a
$20,000 grant from the Works Progress Administration
paid for the flagstone steps leading down the hillside to
the stage. In 1953, the Forest was dedicated to Professor
Frederick Koch, renowned folk dramatist and founder of
the Carolina Playmakers.
Into the 1970s, the Forest was used regularly for productions by the UNC drama
department and the Carolina Playmakers. It
still hosts a number of community group performances and weddings each year, but it is rarely used
for University-sponsored productions.
Under the direction of Botanical Garden natural
areas curator Stephen Keith ’ 94, the theater already has
received stonework repairs, a new stagehouse roof, and
renovations to the backstage bathroom and dressing
room. But those efforts are just a starting point.
“The Forest Theatre needs a good deal of renovation
before it’s functional and suitable,” Parker said. Needed
improvements include new electrical wiring, floors and
DURWOOD BARBOUR COLLECTION OF NORTH CAROLINA POSTCARDS, NORTH CAROLINA COLLECTION
ceilings in the two lighting towers, enhanced backstage
facilities, a public restroom and better accessibility for
people who are disabled.
Parker grew up around the theater, taking tickets and
helping his father, a dramatic arts professor at UNC, set
up for shows. In 1994, he even had his wedding in the
theater, complete with a Scottish bagpiper.
Parker has seen numerous restoration attempts fail to
get off the ground. “I suppose about every two or three
years someone calls me up and says, ‘Hey, I just discovered the Forest Theatre, have you heard of it?’” he said.
In fall 2006, Paul Kapp, UNC’s campus historic
preservation architect, joined Botanical Garden staff
members and Garson in meetings to discuss the theater’s
future. In the spring, Kapp applied for a grant to do
design work on a restoration.
Botanical Garden Director Peter White said the
This scene from the
early days shows
how it looked before
the stone walls,
lighting towers and
tiered stone seats
were added. The
photo is from a postcard in the Durwood
given to UNC’s North
The Forest remains a lovely spot, tucked against Battle Woods on the
eastern edge of the campus, but it also wears the forlorn look of the unkempt.
group has planned a renovation of the Forest Theatre
since assuming management of the area two years ago.
The Botanical Garden has recently had success raising
funds for projects in the Coker Arboretum, Battle Park
and a new visitor’s center.
“I think if it were fixed up, different people would
find reasons to use it,” David Adamson said. “Productions
do happen there, and if it were made a little more welcoming to a company, more would happen.”