Despite its eye-catching architecture and the various rumors surrounding its history, Forest Theatre might still be the best kept secret on UNC’s campus.
Built into the hillside on the University’s eastern edge on Country Club Road, the stone amphitheater has existed for nearly a century, and many students aren’t even aware of it.
“I don’t know much, but it’s been around a long time,” said senior dramatic arts major Max Bitar. “I’ve heard this rumor that one of the stones in the theater is actually from the Globe Theatre from when Shakespeare was alive, but I don’t know if it’s true.”
The first dramatic performance at Forest Theatre’s location was to celebrate the tricentennial of William Shakespeare’s death in 1916, and Shakespearean plays have been staple of the location ever since.
In 2013 Bitar starred in LAB! Theatre’s “Henry VI” production, which was staged in Forest Theatre. He said he not only loved the experience, but thought using the space added depth to the performance.
“It really lends itself well to theater like Shakespeare,” he said. “The space is so large it gives you a lot of room to invest. I mean, how much more Shakespearean can you feel when you’re surrounded by stones in an amphitheater?”
Bitar said the theater could also be difficult to use because of the lighting, acoustic and weather issues that come from being outside and that it’s not ideal for most contemporary performances.
“It was very active and fun but a different experience,” said Catherine Shocket, a sophomore dramatic arts major who also acted in “Henry VI.”
“The biggest difficulty we had was that there was one flood light at nighttime and so trying to run around behind the theater to get on the stage in two minutes, you had to hurry,” she said.
Shocket said in spite of technical challenges, the space was still wonderful to work in and one of her favorite experiences in college.
“Live theater’s always exciting, but (Forest Theatre) adds even more elements,” she said. “If you’re actually outside and you can hear trees rustling and birds — it just makes it that much more real and alive than being in a dark auditorium.”
The location was developed into a permanent theater by Carolina PlayMakers founder and UNC professor Frederick Koch, a few years after it hosted its first performance. Today, Forest Theatre is a part of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, which manages and schedules its bookings.
“It’s used by departments who put on plays, but the most well-known use is by the Paperhand Puppet Intervention,” said Johnny Randall, director of conservation programs at the Garden.
Randall said Paperhand has been staging shows in the venue for years and that they share similar interests in the message of environmental protection and being out in nature.
Although the theater books everything from plays to weddings, the space is still not widely used by UNC students and performers.
“I think most people come about the theater by stumbling upon it,” said UNC graduate Madison McKenzie Scott, who performed in LAB!‘s “Henry VI” as a senior.
“Also, if a company hasn’t seen something done in a space, there’s a bit of a cognitive block in understanding how to use it. That might deter people as well.”
Scott said despite many people’s lack of familiarity with the theater, she still remembers rumors floating around about its use, such as the secretive Order of Gimghoul utilizing it for covert activities.
Though no rumors about Forest Theatre have been substantiated, Randall said the venue is currently raising money to install a permanent lighting and sound system, in the hopes that a renovation will make the theater more accessible.
“I hope if they do change it, they don’t change much,” Bitar said.
“It’s really rare for a college campus to have a space like that, and it provides an opportunity to take on some really big, really challenging shows. I hope — it’s my very large hope — we’ll start to see more there.”
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