It started as a theater in the woods, a celebration of the summer solstice. Structures soon sprang to help the sun worshipers welcome the longest day of the year. But Stonehenge is a few thousand miles off. Rather, this one’s in rural Chatham County. In 1981, architect James Carnahan started the Rock Rest Amphitheater to host his gatherings. “It was kind of a variety show,” Carnahan says from his Carrboro home. “People came to do music, theater, poetry, whatever. We’d eat a good meal, and it was a lot of fun.”
It was a communal affair from the beginning. Carnahan built forms for the seats, but he called his neighbors when it was time to pour the concrete. Finishing took several years, as the events steadily began to attract a following by word-of-mouth. He actually called it Word-of-Mouth Productions.
Carnahan got inspiration from his former employer Paolo Soleri, a Frank Lloyd Wright acolyte. Soleri, whom Carnahan calls “an urban visionary,” was building the Arcosanti, an experimental town that’s been thriving for 30 years, in the Arizona desert near Scottsdale.
“It was a truly novel concept on how to build cities that I got kind of steeped in,” Carnahan says. “The structures we were building created public outdoor spaces.” When Carnahan went back to Arcosanti in 1980 for an equinox event, he decided to start building a permanent place for his own celebrations in the rural area of Chatham County where he lived.
Early on, theatrical acts were dominant, first put on by Carnahan’s Word-of-Mouth and, later by the theatrical company Shakespeare and Originals. Independent productions were difficult, so Carnahan often made deals with theater companies who had shows up somewhere. They would perform matinees on Saturday and Sunday during the middle of a run elsewhere.
Several years ago, though, Robert and Rachael Wilfert rented the property. One year later, they bought it. But Carnahan didn’t want the amphitheater to go unused: “I told ’em when I sold ’em the property that I hoped very much they’d continue to use it that way and they could consider me a resource.”
But the Wilferts didn’t buy the property for entertainment. They just wanted to live there. “Because it had this history of production behind it, and a lot of neighbors still in the area pitched in to build it, we felt like we needed to keep it going,” says Robert Wilfert.
The musical seeds were planted when Rachael Wilfert got to know Brown Mountain Lights singer Janet Williams at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Public Health where they both work. Williams enlisted husband Gerry–who has run a record store in Chapel Hill, booked talent for The ArtsCenter, does public relations work, and organizes local musical events–to plan a musical menu for the amphitheater.
But Williams’ first sighting of the amphitheater didn’t quite live up to his expectations. “I envisioned the Hollywood Bowl or something. It’s not quite that,” he says. In fact, Williams was worried that the site was so rustic and out of the way that people would be hesitant to come. He soon found out he had no reason to worry. “When I started mentioning it to people, anybody who had been around Chatham County for more than 10 years knew of it.”
The amphitheater was left pretty much as it was in years past for its June 3 debut with Brown Mountain Lights, though lighting and sound have been upgraded and plastic chairs are now available through the amphitheater. Brown Mountain Lights drew 60 people, well below the amphitheater’s self-imposed limit of 150.
“It’s not so much the people, it’s the cars,” says Wilfert, who encourages carpooling. “We really want to keep things to a manageable scale, and parking is the No. 1 concern for that.”
In fact, it’s conceivable that such a high limit is ambitious, especially now that Shakori Hills has expanded its music schedule to every weekend as both Fearrington Village and Bynum General Store continue to provide music. But Wilfest says Rock Rest is in a league all its own.
“A, it’s outside, and B, it’s intimate and outside, which is kind of an odd combination,” Wilfert says. “The ability to get that close to a band and to have that kind of summer evening out separates the show here from all the rest.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Carolina Chocolate Drops will perform at the Rock Rest Amphitheater in northern Chatham County on Saturday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. (Read our story on the Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens’ recent trip to Africa and a review of the Drops’ new CD.) To reserve seats for the show and obtain directions, e-mail email@example.com or call 919-542-5943. Donations of $15 per seat are requested. Kids under 12 are admitted free. For more on the Drops, see sankofastrings.com/ccd or www.myspace.com/carolinachocolatedrops. For more on Rock Rest, see www.rockrestlive.com.