Stranger Places: Cove Amphitheater

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GRAPHIC BY SARAH BRADY / THE FLAT HAT

If you’ve wandered around Lake Matoaka at night, you might have encountered an old, abandoned amphitheater. Although the seats and stage are overgrown with trees, the theater is distinctly man-made, a relic of a bygone era. It’s certainly an odd site to see, especially given its proximity to Martha Wren Briggs Amphitheater, which is currently in use. So, why is this other amphitheater here? Why is it abandoned? How come the school hasn’t turned it into another parking lot?

Searching for “the William and Mary abandoned amphitheater” will yield very few results beyond a stray Reddit post or two. Mostly, you’ll get results for the other amphitheater at Lake Matoaka. Like the bigger, stronger sibling, the Martha Wren Briggs Amphitheater has crowded out all mention of its abandoned, weaker twin. The larger amphitheater used to be called Common Glory Stage, and opened in 1947 specifically to host a play called (you guessed it) “The Common Glory.” This play told the dramatic story of the American Revolution, and it was pretty popular, playing every summer for nearly 30 years. It was basically the “Hamilton” of its time. Paul Green, the playwright, was so inspired by his popularity that he wrote another play called “The Founders,” and that’s when our poor, belittled amphitheater comes in.

In 1956, the Jamestown Corporation decided to build another amphitheater by Lake Matoaka to host “The Founders,” a drama about the early Jamestown settlers. They named this new project Cove Amphitheater, a 1700-seat stage in the picturesque Matoaka woods. Unfortunately, due to lack of popularity, “The Founders” only ran for two seasons, ending in 1958. Who would’ve guessed that a play about people dying of dysentery would be unpopular? The Jamestown Corporation had been overly optimistic, and Cove Amphitheater lay dormant and disused with no people to fill its seats.

After years of low attendance, the Jamestown Corporation went out of business entirely in 1976, donating both of its amphitheaters to the College of William and Mary. Although Common Glory Stage began renovations in 2006, Cove Amphitheater was left to the forces of nature. In 1979, the dressing building of the amphitheater was given to the art department as a sculpture studio, but the theater itself was left alone.

The next time you’re over in Matoaka woods, see if you can spot Cove Amphitheater. Although it was only in use for two years, the remains of the theater are still visible over 60 years later. Take some time to reflect on the overgrown trees, the moss-covered benches and the swaths of leafy asphalt. Then, think about the moral of this story: don’t build a stage for a play that nobody wants to see.