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‘The same Forest Theatre, only better’

The North Carolina Botanical Garden solicits ideas for how to bring the historic amphitheater into its second century without losing its natural charm.

People talking at the Forest Theatre.
Stephen Keith, director of development for the North Carolina Botanical Garden, speaks during a Forest Theatre Community Workshop meeting about proposed renovations of The Forest Theatre on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. June 28, 2022 (Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

On a recent summer evening, friends and neighbors gathered on the flagstone seats of the Koch Memorial Forest Theatre to talk about the future of the 103-year-old venue. In the shade of the tree canopy, they swatted at mosquitoes and shared memories. They talked about the musical and dramatic performances they had seen, the puppet shows their kids had grown up with, the quiet times spent reading or reflecting in the natural space. 

Sure, it would be nice to have permanent restrooms instead of renting Porta Potties, and people in wheelchairs or using walkers should have easier access. Performers should be protected from the elements and have a place to change costumes or store scenery. But please don’t change the character of this secluded spot in the heart of campus, they said. 

Don’t worry, said the strategic planning and management consultants who came to town at the end of June to talk with community members about the venue. Those issues were already addressed in a2019 feasibility studyabout renovations to the amphitheater. The recommendations included low-key additions such as handrails, accessible pathways, restrooms, backstage storage and a deployable stage canopy. 

“These improvements must never call attention to themselves, nor can they alter the essential qualities of being in this unique space and environment,” concluded the study’s executive summary. “In the end, it must be the same Forest Theatre, only better.” 

But even low-key changes will require more management. The consultants for the project, Theatre Projects and Keen Independent Research, will take information gathered in the recent round of presentations, meetings and focus groups and make recommendations for the next stage of the process: how to make the theater function better.

A rendering of an updated Forest Theater.

Rendering of possible changes to Forest Theatre, including a deployable cover, increased storage and back of house facilities and everyday amenities.

Managing change 

The current caretakers of the space, the North Carolina Botanical Garden, are very comfortable with managing the “forest” part of Forest Theatre. 

“We will never abandon the forest or the trees that make the theater special” or the connections to neighboring Battle Park, said Damon Waitt, botanical garden director and member of the project’s executive planning committee.  

But a renovated, more accessible venue will require more specialized management. “Right now, we hand Paperhand Puppets the key to the storage room and rake the fall leaves off the seats. That’s the level of our understanding of how to run an outdoor theater,” Waitt said. “If it’s going to be an enhanced performance venue, that’s going to require a level of sophisticated care that’s out of our scope.” 

That’s why the executive planning committee has pulled in so many campus and community stakeholders to be part of the discussion. “How we’re doing it is emblematic of what we’re going to be doing,” said Alison Friedman, executive and artistic director for Carolina Performing Arts and committee member.  

Friedman reeled off a long list of campus and community presenters and performers as well as academic users who have been involved in the process. “Because everybody agrees the Forest Theatre is this amazing gem of a space, we want as broad input as possible,” she said. “We all agree that it can be used more by more people, so what’s the best structure to do that? And how are we going to pay for all that?”  

The consultants, who were also part of the feasibility study, will provide business plans and models based on different scenarios. As with the study, the focus is on keeping the historic theater the same, but better.  

“In so many ways, this is the quintessential Carolina space,” said Elizabeth Engelhardt, senior associate dean for fine arts & humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences. She’s also on the executive planning committee. “It is deeply in and of this place. It is a venue that is inseparable from the land and the plants and the stone it is built from. So we want to get this right.”  

Waitt called the new campus-wide attention being paid to this priceless gem “a huge leap forward” for the theater.    

“It’s starting to feel like a pan-University place already,” he said. 

Take about 10 minutes to complete the online community feedback survey about the renovated and improved Koch Memorial Forest Theatre before the survey closes July 24. If you have any questions or are unable to complete the online survey, please email KMFT@theatreprojects.com or call the project hotline at 984-355-2638.