100 Years of Forest Theatre

entrance to Forest Theatre

Many of us know and love Forest Theatre as the late summer home of the Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s annual performances.Others remember frequent performances by various groups through the mid-1970s, and a few might even remember the work of its namesake, the father of American folktale.

The Frederick Henry Koch Memorial Forest Theatre is celebrating its 100th birthday next year.The story of its youth is a story of community culture combined with the passion of Koch.

Frederick Koch grew up in the Midwest in the late 1800s, earned several degrees in drama, and eventually became a professor at the University of North Dakota. In this role, he encouraged his students to create dramas based on their own experiences of farm and frontier life.Koch was passionate about Shakespeare, and he believed by having students write about themselves, eventually someone would write in a way that would reflect America and resonate universally, becoming an American Shakespeare.

Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, UNC president Edward Kidder Graham was interested in extending education off campus to the community and beyond.He appreciated Koch’s work in community drama, and thought dramas created by the people of North Carolina demonstrating their heritage could be used to show the
nation that North Carolina was filled with rich culture.A recent essay by H.L.Mencken had criticized the South as“a vast plain of mediocrity,” citing the little theater movement as evidence.According to Mencken, community theaters and art exhibitions were sweeping the nation, with the exception of the South.

Graham brought Koch to UNC in 1918, and the drama department quickly took off. Shortly after his arrival in Chapel Hill, Koch and William C. Coker, botany professor and chair of the grounds and buildings commitee, met to determine the location of an outdoor theater, the venue we now know as Forest Theatre. The location they chose had already been used for this purpose—one of the earliest performances at the site was in honor of the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, and freshman Paul Green had performed his self-authored “Surrender to the Enemy” there in 1917.

In 1919, Koch established the Carolina Playmakers, now Playmakers Repertory Company, to produce and perform original folk plays in addition to performing classic and contemporary plays. Forest Theatre became the home for their annual outdoor production.

Thomas Wolfe, Paul Green, and numerous other students created folk drama, writing about legends or day-to-day college life. Often, these plays portrayed the conflicts of the New South, adding to the university’s radical reputation. Meanwhile, the Carolina Playmakers were critically acclaimed. Beginning in the 1920s, the troupe traveled across the state and the nation, and UNC was home to a leading academic program in playwriting and production with Koch as the head.

In the 1930s, the university’s drama program was tapped to aid in recovery from the Great Depression. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created the Federal Theatre Project, led by Hallie Flanagan who worked to build a nationwide program despite the concentration of theater artists in Los Angeles and NewYork.To do this,she turned to directors at community and college theaters across the country. She worked closely with Koch and the Playmakers, hoping this would become the model for other rural areas.

Flanagan felt a new building for the Playmakers would be a candidate for a WPA construction project.That plan collapsed, but from 1940-1943, a WPA grant was used to renovate Forest Theatre. Flagstone steps were built, in addition to stone lighting towers, a director’s box, ticket box, main entrance, and a stone stage backdrop. The new stonework was designed by Albert Q. Bell, designer of the Waterside Theatre, home of “The Lost Colony” written by Paul Green.

In 1943, the new Forest Theatre was dedicated before a Carolina Playmakers production of Shakespeare’s“A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Unfortunately,Koch died the following year. In 1953, the theater was officially named the Frederick Henry Koch Memorial Forest Theatre.

By the mid-1970s, Playmaker’s new building offered several indoor production facilities. Forest Theatre was no longer a venue for many performances, and received little maintenance. In 2004, the management of Battle Park, which includes Forest Theatre, was transferred to the Garden. In 2012, a grant enabled the Garden to enhance the electrical capacity of the stage, but there are many more improvements necessary to allow Koch’s vision to flourish, including drainage issues, repairing the lighting towers and other structures, and improving lighting and sound infrastructure. As we look to the next 100 years of Forest Theatre, the Garden will be working with with campus and community partners to sustain Koch’s dream of outdoor performances.

To learn more about Forest Theatre restoration planning or to make a financial gift toward Forest Theatre enhancements, contact NCBG associate director of development Stephen Keith at 919-962-9458 or skeith@email.unc.edu.