Over eighty years ago, one woman with a dream and a heck of a lot of determination began building a small outdoor theater near her home in a gully overlooking the Atlantic. A fan of the theater since early childhood, Rowena Cade dreamed of creating a place where her community could gather to see the talented productions put on by her friends and family. With the assistance of her two gardeners, Rowena worked tirelessly throughout the winter of 1931, and in the summer of 1932, the Minack Theater saw its first production – The Tempest. The stage was simple, the lighting was delivered via car headlights, but they had done it – the Minack’s first production was a hit, earning the small theater a mention in The Times, and so the Minack Theater began to grow.
Every winter for seven years, Rowena worked to improve and expand the theater, allowing space for bigger and better productions each summer. The onset of WWII curtailed the growth of the theater for the war’s duration, but as soon as peace returned, Rowena was back at it, working on the theater well into her 80’s. The theater, as it exists today, has come a long way since its humble beginnings, and is now one of the most highly revered open-air theaters in the world. For theater lovers, this is an absolute must-see on a visit to Cornwall.
Situated on a cliff next to Porthcurno Beach, The Minack Theater can now seat up to 800 people on terraced benches cut into the earth, or special granite seats if you’re a high roller. From April to September, the seats are filled to capacity every night for the season’s summer productions – everyone hoping to experience a little bit of the magic that comes from attending a play in such a beautiful setting with the moon shining across the bay. (But if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even get an impromptu performance during the daytime when someone gets up on the stage and starts reciting Shakespeare in German. Or maybe that was just us…)
The stunning backdrop to the stage aside, the realization that everything you are seeing at this theater was made by the hands of one spunky woman and two skilled craftsmen is pretty staggering. The maze of steps leading to the many terraces of seats, the names of performances and dates carved into the granite rock, the fact that this is all built into the side of a cliff – I was in awe. No doubt, countless hours of labor and back-breaking work went into achieving this outstanding aesthetic. In Cornish, Minack means rocky place, and I can’t think of a more appropriate name for this theater made of rock, and surrounded by rock.
Originally intending only to visit the Minack as a quick stop on our tour of western Cornwall’s coast, we decided we couldn’t leave without experiencing some of the nighttime Minack magic ourselves and headed to the box office with our fingers crossed that there would still be seats available for a show. As luck would have it, we managed to secure ourselves two spots for an evening performance of HMS Pinafore the very next night!
Seats for regular folks (ie: people who aren’t members of the Minack) are first come, first served, so we arrived an hour early to get a good spot in the lower terrace near the stage. Now, I’ve got my fair share of padding on my rear, but let me tell you, after an hour of sitting and waiting for the show to start, I wished I’d paid extra for the cushions they were handing out before the show. After the show, and over three hours of sitting on hard dirt and rock, I thought I might never regain feeling back there again!
As an added bonus, as if the Minack weren’t already awesome enough, we were allowed to bring our own food and drinks into the theater, so, to pass the time while we were waiting for the show to begin, Cory and I had our own little picnic party with sandwiches, crisps, and cookies. As much as I love the grand theaters in London, never have I been allowed to bring a noisy bag of cheese and onion crisps into their shows. I was definitely diggin’ the relaxed, comfortable atmosphere here.
The play we saw, HMS Pinafore, was put on by the Cambridge University Gilbert and Sullivan Society. These kids were so talented! Everything was on point – the acting, the singing, the comedy – I was cracking up the whole time. When the lights came on for intermission, I was shocked to discover we were over halfway through the show. Four thumbs up from me and Cory for this show! The only thing I wish I’d done differently was dress a little warmer. By the second half of the show, the sun had long gone down and the wind had picked up, and I became very grateful for how tightly we were all packed into the lower terrace. There’s nothing like cuddling with strangers to stay warm…
If you’re in the western Cornwall area, you owe it to yourself to pay the Minack a visit, whether you can only swing by in the daytime or stick around to catch one of the fantastic evening performances. I’m very grateful we had the opportunity to do both. Sitting in the theater, listening to the waves lap against the rocks as the sun went down isn’t a memory I’ll soon be forgetting!