Forest Theater

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Forest Theater
Forest Theater.jpg
Sunset over the Forest Theatre during 1997 Carmel Shake-speare Festival production of Julius Caesar
Forest Theater is located in Carmel
Forest Theater
Location in Carmel-by-the-Sea
General information
Type Amphitheatre
Location Santa Rita St, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, United States
Coordinates 36°33′13″N 121°55′00″W / 36.5535°N 121.9168°W / 36.5535; -121.9168Coordinates: 36°33′13″N 121°55′00″W / 36.5535°N 121.9168°W / 36.5535; -121.9168
Current tenants year-round:Pacific Repertory Theatre; seasonal:Forest Theater Guild
Opening July 10, 1910
Owner City of Carmel-by-the-Sea
Design and construction
Architect WPA

Founded in 1910, the Forest Theater, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, was one of the earliest outdoor amphitheatres west of the Rockies.[1] Actor/director Herbert Heron is generally cited as the founder and driving force, and poet/novelist Mary Austin is often credited with suggesting the idea.[2] Numerous groups presented plays and pageants. Original works by California authors, children's theatre, and the plays of Shakespeare were the primary focus.[3]

The property was deeded to the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea in order to qualify for federal funding and, in 1939, the site became a WPA project. After several years, the site re-opened as The Carmel Shakespeare Festival, with Herbert Heron as its Director, and, with the exception of the WWII years of 1943-44, the festival continued through the 1940s. In 1949, Heron, and others, created the Forest Theatre Guild and, while under the leadership of Cole Weston, the 60-seat Indoor Forest Theater was created. The guild remained active until 1961.[4]

With the closing of the original Forest Theater Guild, the outdoor theatre lay unused and neglected for most of the 1960s. From 1968-2010, Marcia Hovick's Children's Experimental Theater leased the indoor theatre, which is now operated by Pacific Repertory Theatre's School of Dramatic Arts (SoDA).[4] In 1972,[5] a new Forest Theater Guild was created, producing musicals and adding a film series in 1997. In 1984, Pacific Repertory Theatre (PacRep) began producing on the outdoor stage, reactivating Herbert Heron's Carmel Shakespeare Festival in 1990.[6] In 2005, PacRep presented the theater's highest-attended production, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, to a combined audience of over 10,000 ticket holders.[7]

On Wednesday, April 23, 2014, the facility was shuttered due to health and safety issues caused by years of deferred maintenance. In a special workshop on May 5, the community and city council declared a "cultural community emergency"[8] developing a quick consensus that the historic facility should be reopened as soon as possible.

Herbert Heron[edit]

Herbert Heron as Hamlet in 1926

Herbert Heron came to Carmel in 1908. He had worked extensively on the stage in Los Angeles and came from a background of writers and dramatists. On a visit from Los Angeles, Heron fell in love with the village by the sea. He soon settled in Carmel, bringing with him his young bride Opal Heron, the daughter of a Polish Count.

In 1910, the Herons found a concave hillside looking out, surrounded by oaks and pines, and thought it would be an ideal space for an outdoor theater. Heron’s idea was to stage plays by Carmel authors starring local residents – a true community theater. He approached Frank Devendorf, co-founder of the Carmel Development Company, and asked about purchasing the plot for such a purpose. Devendorf, wanting to attract artistic spirits and "brain workers" to the nascent village, i.e. teachers, librarians, etc., agreed and let Heron have the space rent-free.

By February 1910, construction began on the theater. It was a simple plan: a wooden proscenium stage with a scrim of pines and plain wooden benches. Meanwhile, Heron was busying organizing the first production with the help of the newly minted Forest Theater Society.

The first theatrical production, David, a biblical drama by Constance Lindsay Skinner, inaugurated the Forest Theater on July 9, 1910. Reviewed in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, it was reported that over 1,000 theatergoers attended the production[9] There was no electricity at the theater – calcium floodlights were brought by covered wagon from Monterey to light the stage.[10] Two bonfires were also lit on opposite ends of the proscenium, a tradition which continues today. By all accounts, the performance was considered a success and the packed house helped to solidify the role of theater in Carmel.

Forest Theater Society, Western Drama Society & Carmel Arts & Crafts Club[edit]

1911 production of Twelfth Night

The Forest Theater Society produced several plays in the next few years. Of note was the 1912 production of The Toad, a play written by Bertha Newberry, the wife of Perry Newberry, an early Carmel leader. Also produced that year was the first children's play staged at the Forest Theater, Alice in Wonderland, adapted by Newberry and Arthur Vachell. There was so much enthusiasm for live theater, and varying ideas on how the Forest Theater should be run, that two additional theater groups began participating – The Western Drama Society (including Heron and other members of the Forest Theater Society), whose goal was to focus on California authors, and the already-established Arts and Crafts Club, which had been active in the town since 1905.

In 1913, theatergoers witnessed the premiere of Mary Austin’s Fire, which she also directed, and in 1915 – a season that boasted 11 separate productions – audiences saw the premiere of Newberry’s Junipero Serra, a historical pageant focusing on the life of Father Junipero Serra. The ensuing decade saw the Forest Theater reach the height of production, with 50 plays and musicals staged between 1915 and 1924, including a 1922 production of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, when director Edward Kuster was almost run out of town for erecting a giant backdrop that hid Carmel’s beloved canopy of trees. Kuster defended himself admirably, noting that the play was, after all, set in a desert!

Unfortunately, this overabundance of plays became a serious strain on resources, such as players, donations and attendees, which were, understandably, spread thin. Inevitably, factional strife erupted between the groups and the quality of theater in Carmel began to decline. In 1924, in order to solve this dilemma and rebuild a healthy theater scene, the competing producing organizations disbanded, and under the auspices of the Arts and Crafts Club, the Forest Theater Corporation was created as a unifying entity to produce and manage the plays staged at the Forest Theater.[11]

Once again, the picturesque outdoor theater became extremely popular in the small village and everyone, it seemed, added to the creative process. The town’s many carpenters and woodworkers built highly intricate sets; those handy with a thread and needle created costumes. And just about everyone found their way on stage. Productions at the Forest Theater were truly a village affair. The resulting success enabled the Forest Theater Corporation to buy the land from the Carmel Development Company in 1925.[12] The Forest Theater Corporation continued to produce plays throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. While the state of theater in Carmel was in a precarious position due to a glut of indoor theaters and theatrical companies, the Forest Theater continued to flourish. In 1934, the Forest Theater saw its 100th major production, The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife, by Anatole France. Heron directed the comedy, which featured set and costumes designs by Helena Heron.

Great Depression[edit]

Works Progress Administration workers rebuilding the Forest Theater in 1939.

The Great Depression struck and it affected all aspects of local life. When repairs were needed and no money could be found from local donors, the idea of applying for Works Progress Administration money was proffered. Funds were only available to government entities and the private non-profit Forest Theater was not eligible. In 1937, it was decided to deed the Forest Theater to the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea in order to obtain WPA funds for major renovations. Improvements to the facility included building new benches, laying a concrete foundation for the stage, and replacing the surrounding barbed-wired fences with a traditional grape-stake fence. While renovations were taking place there were no productions, no rehearsals – for almost 3 years, the Forest Theater was dark.

Carmel Shakespeare Festival[edit]

With a rejuvenated space, the Forest Theater was ready to get back into the theater business. The works of Shakespeare had proven highly popular beginning with Heron’s 1911 production of Twelfth Night, and upon completion of the WPA project, Heron formally resumed productions with the inauguration of the Carmel Shakespeare Festival in 1940. The festival offered Shakespeare, including Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and As You Like It, as well as the works of Carmel authors, including the first local production of Robinson Jeffers' The Tower Beyond Tragedy. With the advent of World War II, however, mandatory blackouts were ordered for coastal towns and cities. The residents of Carmel participated and halted all Forest Theater activity, essentially closing the facility in 1943-44, and again in 1946.[12] In 1947, the facility resumed annual productions of Shakespeare and local authors.

Forest Theater Guild[edit]

Throughout this time, Herbert Heron maintained his intense involvement with the Forest Theater, continuing to write, produce, direct and star in productions. Growing tired of the constant activity, Heron retired from active involvement. Theater was in Heron's blood, though, and he could not completely leave the theater behind. As part of deeding the Forest Theater to the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the City took over responsibility for the physical plant. Realizing that a supporting organization was needed for the City-owned facility, Heron organized and co-founded the Forest Theatre Guild in 1949.[13] Guided by Cole Weston and Philip Oberg, the Forest Theater Guild began to produce plays by local authors, Shakespeare, and classic drama, and in 1950, under the guidance of Cole Weston, built dressing rooms and a small theater underneath the main outdoor stage. The space became known as the Theater-in-the-Ground, and today is simply called the Indoor Forest Theater. In 1961, the original Forest Theater Guild ceased operations.[4]

End of Heron era[edit]

In 1960, Herbert Heron finished his 50th year with the Forest Theater with his own play, Pharaoh. By 1963 the theater had shown over 140 plays, including 64 premieres and dramatizations by California authors. Numbered among these productions were those by Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Greek tragedies, local history, children's plays, light operas and musical comedies. One production even featured real horses on stage! Following a brief illness Herbert Heron died on January 8, 1968, at the age of 84.

Unfortunately, despite some continued play production, parts of the theater were left in disrepair. Upkeep was not maintained by the City and, during the mid-1960s, the wood in the stage and seating rotted and the grounds became rundown. By this time, the Forest Theater Guild had closed and abandoned the facility, and, with a few minor exceptions, no plays were being shown on the main stage. The City began to use the site for other purposes, such as a Boy Scout camp, and a corporate yard. The Cultural Commission recommended to the City that either repairs should be made to the aging Forest Theater, or it should be unloaded from the City's holdings. At that time, no action was taken. In 1966, rumblings about the usefulness of the Forest Theater were made by the City Council during the 1966-1967 budget meetings.[14] Discussions included whether it was cost effective to keep the theater, resulting in an uproar by Carmelites determined to save the historic site. In 1968, to keep the Forest Theater in use, Cole Weston, who had then become the city’s first Cultural Director, leased the Theater-in-the-Ground to the then-homeless Children's Experimental Theatre.

Children's Experimental Theater[edit]

The Children's Experimental Theatre (CET) was formed in 1960 by Marcia Hovick to encourage children of all ages to develop confidence and creativity by teaching theatrical skills such as diction, memorization, movement, stage combat, technical theater, and more. CET had been temporarily using space at the Golden Bough Playhouse and Sunset Center, and needed a permanent place for their activities.[15] At the Forest Theater, CET flourished and expanded. In 1969, CET formed a new production entity, appropriately called the Staff Players Repertory Company, staging classic drama in the Indoor Forest Theater. Plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, Molière, and Giraudoux, among many other renowned classical writers, were presented. In addition, CET formed a “Traveling Troupe” in order to bring performances to schoolchildren who would not otherwise have the opportunity to see live theater. Not only has CET benefited generations of Monterey County children, but has also kick-started the theatrical careers of many of the area's current actors, directors and producers. In 2010, after 50 years of continuous business, CET ceased operations.[4]

Threat of Closure[edit]

In spite of this new use of the Forest Theater, the main stage remained dark. And once again, reservations about the usefulness of the theater were voiced. In 1971, the Cultural Commission considered closing the theater for good.[16] Again, the residents of Carmel rose up and voiced their opposition. A new Forest Theater Guild was created and, in order to raise needed funds as well as draw attention to the possible closure, produced a staged reading of Robinson Jeffers’ Medea and The Tower Beyond Tragedy, which featured a memorable performance by world renowned actress Dame Judith Anderson.[4]

In 1972, the Guild officially incorporated,[5] and staged their first full production, producing Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The success of this production showed the City that there was still public interest and support for the Forest Theater. The City Council commissioned a study to evaluate the efficacy of the theater.[17] The public was invited to comment and, after several months of often heated discussions, several recommendations were made: The City Council decided to continue city operation of the facility, and the outdoor theater would be leased to the Forest Theater Guild on a two-year trial basis. The trial was a success, and, after negotiations over use of space between the Forest Theater Guild and CET, the lease with the Forest Theater Guild was renewed. Over the next decade, the Guild produced over 20 major plays, focusing on the great classics from the world stage, including memorable productions of such important American works as Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten and A Long Day’s Journey into Night, both staged by Cole Weston, son of the well-known photography icon, Edward Weston, and a renowned photographer in his own right.

Pacific Repertory Theatre[edit]

In 1984, a new organization joined the Forest Theater community, GroveMont Theatre. GroveMont was founded in 1982 by Stephen Moorer, who had participated in the Children's Experimental Theatre program, and had also acted in Forest Theater Guild productions. In 1984, at the request of the Carmel Cultural Commission, GroveMont began producing shows at the Forest Theater, staging Jeffers’ Medea, starring local actress Rosamond Goodrich Zanides.[18] In 1990, Moorer reactivated the old Carmel Shake-speare Festival of the 1940s, adding the hyphen in "Shake-speare" to denote interest and support research into the Shakespeare Authorship Question. In 1993, the company changed its name to Pacific Repertory Theatre (PacRep), becoming the only professional theater company in residence at the Forest Theater,[19] continuing to stage productions at the Forest Theater every September and October, expanding into August in 2000. In 2011, following the closure of the 50 year old CET, the City of Carmel awarded the year-round lease of the indoor Forest Theater to PacRep for its educational SoDA program.[20]


Performers from PacRep's production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, September, 2006.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, facility maintenance and play production remained constant. In 1988, the City spent $200,000 for much-needed renovations, which included replacing the seating, rebuilding the stage, and addressing necessary safety issues. CET/Staff Players continued its twofold mission, and in the process, educated thousands of area youth while staging hundreds of productions featuring children and adults from the local region. With the Guild’s production of Canterbury Tales, one of the first musicals staged at the Forest Theater since the 1950s, annual large-scale musicals began to be produced on the outdoor stage, with great success.

Pacific Repertory Theatre’s annual family musicals have included “high-flying” technology for productions of Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. In 1990, PacRep reinstated the Carmel Shake-speare Festival (the hyphen denoting exploration of the Shakespeare authorship question), hearkening to the early days at the theater, and when Herbert Heron inaugurated the original Carmel Shakespeare Festival in 1940. The Films in the Forest, a program showing classic and newer films during the summer months, became a popular program for the Forest Theater Guild in 1994. Among the many successful productions at the Forest Theater over the years, 1990’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast proved to be a benchmark for attendance records. Directed by Walt DeFaria and produced by PacRep, the musical sold over 10,000 tickets.[7]

Forest Theater Foundation[edit]

In 2010, the community celebrated the centennial celebration of the historic site. Currently, the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea is planning a significant renovation of the aging facility, which is again showing considerable wear and tear. Pacific Repertory Theatre, the Forest Theater Guild, and PacRep's education "SoDA" (School of Dramatic Arts) program continue to bring theatre instruction and the joy of live performance to the beautiful Forest Theater. In 1999, the user-groups joined together to form the Forest Theater Foundation, dedicated “to the preservation and enhancement of the Forest Theater and its historic programs”. The Forest Theater Foundation’s aim is to continue the rich history of the theater, inspiring those who create the magic at the unique “open-air playhouse”, while maintaining the Forest Theater as a treasure for residents and visitors alike. Longtime Carmel advocate and former mayor Perry Newberry perhaps said it best: "There is no other thing here – save only Carmel's beauty – more important to preserve and protect than the Forest Theater."

2014 Closure[edit]

On Wednesday, April 23, 2014, the facility was shuttered due to health and safety issues caused by years of deferred maintenance. According to City Building Official John Kuehl, "It was a number of issues. The stage was spongey in spots, substandard wiring methods that needed more thorough investigation. Electrical hazards, access issues." It was reported that "between the inspectors, the insurance liabilities, lawyers, risk managers and the fire marshall," it came as no surprise that the venue was shuttered. Mayor Jason Burnett promised to hold discussions with both the resident theater companies, though he expects the 2014 season at the aging facility will "be lost".[21]

On Monday, May 5, 2014, in a special workshop called by the City Council, community members were unified in asking the council to focus on reopening the facility as soon as possible, and renovating in smaller phases during the non-performance season. The council agreed that there was, in the words of Mayor Jason Burnett, "a remarkable level of consensus" on how to proceed with the historic facility, which "predates the city itself and is a key link to the early bohemian days of Carmel."[22] councilman Kenneth Talgmadge summed up the general feeling in the room: "I'm not looking for a 100-year plan. The city's set aside $1 million. Let's do quick fixes in phase one," adding, "I think we need to get a couple of contractors in there, fix the bathrooms, the electrical, the ADA first. The other stuff in phase two."[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Carmel at Work and Play, Bostick, 1977
  2. ^ Carmel's Forest Theater, by Michael Williams, Pacific Monthly, 1912
  3. ^ Carmel Today and Yesterday, Bostick, 1945
  4. ^ a b c d e "Forest Theater a 'bohemian grove' for Shakespeare fans – Page 2 of 2". The San Francisco Chronicle. August 2, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^ Shakespeare Companies and Festivals: An International Guide By Ron Engle, Felicia Hardison Londré, Daniel J. Watermeier. Entry on Carmel Shakespeare Festival by Philip Clarkson
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^
  9. ^ Barman, Jean. Constance Lindsay Skinner. University of Toronto Press, 2002.
  10. ^ Letter to Richard N. Palmer from Herbert Heron, June 12, 1963. Harrison Memorial Library, Herbert Heron Collected Papers.
  11. ^ Bostick, Daisy and Castelhun, Dorthea. Carmel at Work and Play, The Seven Arts, 1925.
  12. ^ a b Cf. Letter to Palmer, June 1963.
  13. ^ “David Prince to head newly organized Forest Theater Guild.” May 9, 1949. Harrison Memorial Library, Nixon File Forest Theater #11.
  14. ^ “Forest Theater given support.” Monterey Peninsula Herald, August 4, 1966.
  15. ^ Nichols, Kathryn M. “40… and still going strong.” Monterey County Herald, September 7, 1999.
  16. ^ Nickerson, Roy. “Is Forest Theater’s usefulness outlived?” Monterey Peninsula Herald, June 2, 1971.
  17. ^ Forest Theater Committee of the Cultural Commission, City of Carmel-by-the-Sea. “Report on the Forest Theater.” December 4, 1971.
  18. ^ Blum, Terry (January 2002). "Spotlight On Carmel Stephen Moorer"., Monterey County Theatre Alliance. Retrieved 2009-07-20. 
  19. ^ "Pacific Repertory Theatre", Theatre Bay Area website, accessed July 23, 2009
  20. ^, page 2A
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^