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The business of plays

Words by Dan Warden

There are theatres around the world, only a few, where the energy on stage accounts for just a fraction of the drama.

Image by Greg Blundell

Humble origins

Seemingly hewn into the very fabric of the cliffs, set against the backdrop of an elemental struggle between implacable ocean and the indomitable cliffs, Rowena Cade’s vision of the perfect theatre setting continues to inspire amateurs and professionals alike. Today, the theatre you see has undergone some big changes over the eighty years since its conception, but if a member of the audience from its very first performance of The Tempest were to visit, they’d almost certainly recognise it.

Rewind back to 1929, when local drama enthusiasts put on an in-the-elements performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a grassy meadow about a mile inland from the Minack. A few years later, those same players were looking for a venue in which to perform The Tempest, and where better, decided Rowena, for that iconic first scene – a storm-tossed ship at the mercy of the ocean – than the cliffs below her garden. Working with her gardener, Billy Rawlings, between them they moved endless granite boulders and innumerable measures of earth. Over the winter of 1931 and into 1932, they created the lower terraces of the theatre, which are still recognisable today.

The theatre continued to evolve under Rowena’s direction; that first showing of The Tempest had been a big success, so she and her gardeners quickly set to making improvements. A throne was built for Antony and Cleopatra, and they created the early forms of many of the stage structures you can see today. But the stage was still grass-covered; players changed in Rowena’s home – Minack House – and the audience paid for their tickets at a trestle table before clambering down the steep slopes to the theatre.

Although the Minack is built into huge granite cliffs, not everybody knows that almost all of this iconic amphitheatre is made from concrete mixed with local sand. Rowena, herself, carried many tons of sand from Porthcurno to the theatre, mixing concrete that would be used for seats, pillars, steps and walkways. Many of the seats bear the name of a play or performance, each carefully carved by Rowena herself into the wet concrete.

It was all coming along wonderfully, but then, of course, the Second World War broke out. As dog fights began to break out over the channel and children were evacuated from the cities, many of them to Cornwall, the county’s beaches were seen as potential landing places for an invasion. For the Minack, this meant closure for the duration. It became home to fortifications and was made safe with a mesh of barbed wire. When the war was over, much of the Minack had to be re-built, though the pillbox remained, serving as a box office until 1998.

Today at the Minack

Fast forward to today and the facilities have been carefully modernised, providing enough room for even the biggest companies, as well as plenty of storage space for props and equipment. It’s incredible how it has evolved and it’s fair to say that for those readying themselves to appear on stage, there aren’t many dressing rooms in the world with a view quite like this one!

Theatre Manager, Phil Jackson, has been there for the past 29 years, telling me: “I’m very lucky to work in a place like this.” I ask an obvious question: “What in your mind makes it so special, so unique?”

He laughs. “The word unique gets used an awful lot. What we have is a story. The history of the place is really important, a sort of folly that Rowena built in her garden, and it’s turned into something more than she ever imagined. It was busy during her lifetime, obviously. It was getting full-houses, but she never built it with any great plans for the future. At the time, it was something she created in her garden for friends to perform in. That’s really one of the strange things – that story of how it happened.” It is, however, also the fact that the location is truly stunning. “Because it’s a very shallow bay with shell sand, it reflects the colour of the sky.” And he’s right, I myself have visited the Minack on occasion with my partner, simply to stand on the cliffs outside the entrance and gaze across the water – turquoise, even on a cloudy day.

On a side note I ask Phil if he likes to use the beach. He laughs again, “I probably haven’t been on the beach for ten years. I’m not much of a beach person; I like walking on them, I just don’t do Porthcurno. One of our challenges now is actually the number of people that want to come to Porthcurno, which is why we generally do very little promotion. We turn down loads of film crews that want to shoot here – more than we let in.

“We alone bring 300,000 people through these narrow roads every year, and they’re just the ones who come for the Minack. We’re having to learn to cope with the Instagram culture. The number of people who just come here to take a photograph!” Of course, that’s what the Minack is all about. As Phil puts it, “we’re running a theatre that’s funded purely by tourists, who come to look around and learn about the place.”

At the box office

Onto the season ahead and Phil explains that most shows are selling out. “We’ve just had Shakespeare’s Globe On Tour company and [at the time of interview] are about to receive Cornwall’s Miracle Theatre.”

Established in 1979, Miracle Theatre is one of the south west’s key arts organisations, producing a heady mix of touring theatre, always with their signature comic style, comic use of language and an immediate visual appeal.

About the Minack, Miracle’s Managing Director, Annie, explains to me that they always look forward to taking their shows there. “It’s always a highlight of our year. As a touring company, which is usually constantly on the move, it’s a great opportunity to stay in one place and enjoy the view with the thousands who come along to enjoy it with us. Cornwall is so lucky that Rowena picked such a perfect spot and worked so tirelessly to create it for us.”

The Minack Theatre promises a regular mix up of amateur and professional productions, but Phil believes that for a lot – perhaps even most – of the people who visit, it’s not about the show that’s on stage. “It’s very much about ‘seeing something at the Minack.”

How does modern stage technology enhance the authentic ‘Minack’ experience?

“The expectation nowadays,” Phil tells me, “is for people to be able to hear the show clearly. Back in the day, actors would just shout! But we’ve had a sound system in place for 40 years and nowadays, modern technology just makes it more effective. Our system with modern technology allows everything to sound more natural. And the same can be said for lighting. This place takes light so beautifully; we’ve had lights for 60/70 years, and the newer ones we use, for one thing, use less power,” which can only be good.

Image by Lynn Batten

So what does the future hold?

“It’s important to say that the Minack can’t grow physically,” Phil explains. “We don’t want to extend the theatre anymore. What we are doing however, is a lot more educational work. Being a successful theatre, we have our own youth academies, so we’re training a lot of children as well. We also run free workshops for schools. In fact,” he realises, “there’s a school on stage at the moment!”

It’s great to hear that the Minack team are not looking to alter what they do. Having grown up in Cornwall, I’ve never known anybody to campaign for change on that front! Why change a winning formula? But what they are doing, by expanding their reach, is giving opportunities to Cornwall’s younger generations, helping ensure the survival of our great theatrical tradition.


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