The Performing Arts Dispatch: The Minack Theatre

As the ‘Humming Chorus’ was played during a performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Minack Theatre, Butterfly gazed longingly out to the sea, looking for Pinkerton to return. Fate played director when a three-masted yacht sailed into the bay, lit by the moon. A fine example of the great outdoors and the performing arts teaming up to concoct a moment of sheer beauty, these are now quotidian occurrences at the Minack. The stage, in fact, is all that fits the range of vision at this sublime amphitheatre in Porthcurno, southwest Cornwall. The 90-year old venue embraces outdoor theatre under the stars in all its splendour on a cliff by the ocean.

The dramatic open-air arena, with its natural contours, subtropical gardens and asymmetrical stage, makes it an unusual space. Zoë Curnow, Executive Director, emphasises that while all outdoor performances are challenging, being on the cliffside creates additional demands, as well as incredible advantages. The silver trail of moonrise over a dark sea is an effect that regularly outshines some of the best lighting design in the world. A noisy sea, high wind or an occasional thunderstorm, however, can become a different sort of a showstopper. Many performances have been gatecrashed by a pod of dolphins crossing the bay or a cheeky seal bobbing around the Minack rocks. “Sometimes we just have to stop a performance until the wildlife decides to move on,” says Curnow.

Companies bringing their productions have to get their heads around not only the unusual layout and the lack of a back to the stage, but also the oddities that audiences are less aware of. The fact that upstage is a much stronger playing position than downstage, and that the audience is steeply raised above the stage level, compelling the actors to keep their heads tilted up at all times, is a detail that can never be lost. The best shows are always those that embrace the Minack’s unique environment as part of the experience.

The unconventional stage is a labour of love of the founder and the ‘master builder’ Rowena Cade. After losing her father in the First World War, Cade moved to Cornwall, where she built her home, Minack House, still visible on the clifftop. When a local production of The Tempest needed a stage, she offered her cliff garden, oblivious to what would in fact be the beginning of her legacy. Much of the theatre was built with her hands—cutting rocks, carrying sacks of concrete mixed with sand from the beach and engraving complex designs into the terraces with an old screwdriver. Several features of the stage as they exist today were created for a production of Tristan of Cornwall in 1951, while the stage right balcony was built for Romeo and Juliet in 1974.

“Cade is the inspiration for everything that we do at the Minack. Her physical legacy is all around us in every stone and piece of concrete,” says Curnow as she speaks of the Rowena Cade Exhibition at the Minack devoted to telling her exceptional story. With visual displays, reminiscences, artefacts, guided tours, interactive performances and treasure hunts, the exhibition journeys through Cade’s life, most of which was spent building the theatre. Actor Mark Harandon has spent about a decade playing the role of Billy Rawlings, Cade’s gardener and first helper. He tells visitors the story of the long friendship between the genteel Cade and the Cornish gardener.

The arena that Cade built in the winter of 1931-32 was designed for a week-long run of The Tempest. The 2022 season at the Minack saw a return of the production along with a special exhibition dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the theatre, coming full circle. Over these nine decades, the Minack has overcome myriad obstacles unique to a performing arts space of its kind. The metal rods embedded in the concrete with high salt content to give them strength corroded over time. In the 1990s, the stage had to be strengthened and re-laid as it was in danger of sliding into the sea. More recently, the dressing room had to be completely demolished and rebuilt. “Every winter, we have to repair the damage caused by wind and water. We still mix concrete by hand and create the finish exactly the way Cade did. However, we use commercial materials now, not sand from the beach,” Curnow tells us.

In addition to being a theatre, the Minack is also a visitor attraction and carries out a range of education and outreach work. Curnow explains, “The Minack grew out of the local community, and it is imperative that we use its success to support the development of the performing arts in Cornwall. With free workshops and Shakespeare festivals for local schools, we also run acting classes for disadvantaged children and young people who have experienced trauma and loss, as well as a class for adults with special needs.”

With all that the Minack does, it leaves a lasting impression on visitors—audiences and artistes alike. It would only be fair for Curnow to leave us with a memory that could not have been made elsewhere. As a midnight matinee of Titanic – The Musical unfolded onstage to mark the centenary of the loss of the ‘unsinkable’ ship, the performance was meticulously timed so that the moment the ship hit the iceberg would be 100 years to the minute from the actual event. But what transpired was something that went beyond the show flow. The audience arrived to find piles of ice heaped around the terraces because the theatre was hit by a violent storm of hailstones earlier that afternoon. Surprisingly, it did not melt. An accident of weather in April created an effect that the most elaborate production plans could not match. During the performance, a dark shape slipped into the bay and when the crew of the Titanic fired off their distress flares, they were answered by more flares from the sea as the Penlee Lifeboat appeared off the Minack Rock. A training exercise had been arranged to coincide with the performance. The night etched itself as a souvenir people took home that night—a unique Minack memory.

By Aishwarya Bodke. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the December 2022 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.