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Senior Gives New Life to Forest Theatre

Drama began thousands of years ago in outdoor amphitheaters, and UNC senior Sonya Dowhaluk aims to recreate that experience for theatergoers.

For her honors thesis, the dramatic art major will produce Shakespeare's "As You Like It" in the Forest Theatre, UNC's own outdoor theater, located on Country Club Road.

She also is working toward raising funds to renovate the theater so the space will become a more viable option for student group performances.

During research at the N.C. Collection in Wilson Library, Dowhaluk found that the Forest Theatre was used regularly from the time it was built in 1917 until the late 1970s.

Since the 1980s, groups have used the theater for small-scale performances, but logistics such as lighting have made the venue undesirable for nighttime shows. She said full electrical renovation of the outdated lighting system is estimated at $110,000.

"Now there is only one power box, so we have to run a whole lot of cables around the theater," Dowhaluk said.

"We need to put a breaker in the power box and, ideally, light and circuit boxes all around the theater so wires can run around the theater as opposed to one central location."

Dowhaluk is working with the UNC Grounds Services Department, part of the Division of Facilities Services, to find out how to upgrade and maintain the space so it is usable for production.

She also is writing grants for the funding and communicates with engineers about the technical aspects of the renovation project.

Dramatic art Professor Julie Fishell, who works closely with Dowhaluk as the play's co-producer, said she is overwhelmed by Dowhaluk's abilities.

"She has taken a mustard seed of an idea to produce the first outdoor play in over 20 years, secured a nest egg of funding to light outdoor space, and she's done that on her own," Fishell said.

Dowhaluk said she hopes her production of "As You Like It," set to run from April 4 to April 8, will highlight the potential of the theater.

"We're hoping to do an evening performance, and the major renovation won't be done by that time, but I'm hoping it will spark people to contribute money toward this project."

Scott Parker, director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama and one of Dowhaluk's advisers, said her project not only is chronicling the history of the Forest Theatre but also includes a great deal of practical research.

"We hope (the play) will encourage other groups to perform and that the University will see the wisdom in upgrading the facility," Parker said.

Dowhaluk said performing in an outdoor theater does have its drawbacks. Groups that want to perform outside must deal with unpredictable variables such as the weather and noise from traffic.

"Whatever you put on stage -- including lights and costumes -- needs to be able to be rained on," Dowhaluk said.

Despite obstacles, Dowhaluk said, seeing an outdoor drama performance is worth losing the comfort of an indoor theater.

"It's really an amazing experience because it is different from what you are used to," she said. "It brings you closer to what's happening on stage, and it creates a different dynamic between the actors and the audience."

David Adamson, the faculty director for "As You Like It," said the play fits well in an outdoor setting because Shakespeare set it in a wooded area.

"I know Sonya is hopeful the theater will be used more, but it depends on people coming up with projects to use the space," he said. "It is a valuable asset on campus."

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Fishell said the project allows Dowhaluk to combine her liberal arts education with a strong understanding of theater.

"She's not just content with researching history; she wants to make her own history," Fishell said. "That's the mark of a Carolina student."

To nominate someone who has made an outstanding contribution to the University community to be a Star Heel, e-mail

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