Sited on the face of a hillside along the western border of Battle Park, a forested area on the UNC Chapel Hill campus, this open-air theater was first conceived by playwright and drama professor Frederick Koch. In 1916 William Chambers Coker recommended the location for the outdoor performance space, downhill from his arboretum. Construction was completed in 1918, and in 1919 Koch’s newly formed student troupe, the Carolina Playmakers, put on their inaugural performance at the Forest Theatre – the first of many such productions that would help establish Koch’s legacy as a pioneer of the American Folk Drama movement in the South. In 1940 the Works Progress Administration provided funds to reconstruct the theater, and Albert Bell, an English landscape artist who had completed similar projects in Virginia, was hired for its redesign. The theater underwent further renovations in 1948.
Built almost entirely of local stone, the amphitheater is accessed from Country Club Road via a descending, stepped path bordered by low walls. Stone rooms, likely intended to serve as ticketing booths, flank either side of the theater’s main entrance. Stone retaining walls edge the terraced banks of sand-and-stone seating, which descend in arcing rows to the gravel-paved stage with a stone backdrop at the lowest point of the landscape. Two-story stone towers are sited on either side of the seating area, used as dressing rooms and lighting platforms. Though the theater’s interior is free of trees, wooden accents throughout, including the window and doorway frames on the ticket booths, reference its rustic surroundings. The Forest Theatre is maintained by the North Carolina Botanical Garden.