Minack Theatre , West Penwith, West Cornwall
Background history of a unique theatre
Many visitors arrive at the Minack imagining it was built by invading Romans. If Caesar's legions had come this far they might have been beguiled by the beauty of the place, but the real truth is as remarkable as this enduring fiction.
"Minack" in Cornish means a rocky place and the black headed crag below the theatre has always drawn local fishermen. Until the 1930’s they had the gorse filled gully to themselves and the cliffs echoed to the cries of gulls not actors.
From 1931 until she died in 1983 the Minack Theatre was planned, built and financed by one determined woman - Rowena Cade. This page attempts to tell her story and that of the theatre she created.
A Derbyshire Childhood
Rowena Cade was born on 2nd August 1893 in Spondon, Derbyshire where her father owned a cotton mill. Her ancestors had lived thereabouts for 300 years. Joseph Wright, famous painter of the industrial revolution, was her great great grandfather. Though Spondon was still a country village, Derby was already sprawling out towards it.
The second of four children, Rowena represented the fifth generation of her family to live at "The Homestead". She spent a happy and secure childhood in that lovely old house. As a tomboy of seven she remembered climbing from her bedroom window onto the spreading branches of a cedar tree and thence down to the ground.
In January 1902, aged 8, Rowena took the title role in her mother's production of "Alice Through the Looking Glass". There was a cast of eleven local children. Fifteen guests and ten servants watched the dress rehearsal. The two performances had audiences of 27 and 43 respectively. None of those present could have guessed at the impact Rowena Cade would later make on the English theatre.
Rowena comes of age
It was no surprise that the Cades moved to Cheltenham when Rowena's father retired in 1906. His brother was headmaster of Cheltenham College Junior School and his wife had grown up in the town. James Cade bought "Ellerslie" an imposing town house previously owned by Sir Walter Scott the novelist. There the family continued to live a comfortable and genteel life. But, just as Rowena came of age, the First World War changed all that. She went to work in the re-mount stables on Sir John Gilbey's estate at Elsenham and lived in an old shepherd's caravan. There she selected and broke horses which were shipped out to the front lines in France and Belgium.
Cornwall in the 1920's
With the war over, her husband dead and the family scattered, Rowena's mother sold their home in Cheltenham.
The two women did not settle permanently for some years; then they rented a house at Lamorna. Nearby Rowena discovered the Minack headland and bought it for £100. There she built a house for herself and her mother using granite from a St. Levan quarry. It was hurriedly extended to make a home for her sister and family returning from Australia.
Through the twenties entertainment in West Cornwall was invariably self made. Minack House and its garden provided the setting for many such productions. Rowena found that she had a talent for designing and making the costumes needed by her family and friends. And then in 1929 a more ambitious project was organised. Just a mile or so inland "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was to be staged in the open air.
A Dream or a Vision?
Dorothea Valentine chose a tree lined meadow at nearby Crean as the rural backdrop for her production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Though six of the players were or were to become part of her extended family, Rowena Cade was not in the cast. She busied herself behind the scenes as wardrobe mistress. She designed, decorated and made many of the "props" and costumes. The original Fairies remembered her in the field with her sewing machine making last minute alterations. Their only complaint was the difficulty they had balancing on the toadstools.
The play went so well that it was repeated in 1930, though by that time it was a squeeze for many of the children to get back into their costumes. Thinking of what to do next, someone suggested "The Tempest". The rugged coastline offered more appropriate scenery than Crean's secluded valley and the Cade's garden was proposed as the perfect location.
The Minack Theatre comes alive
While Rowena Cade did think of offering her garden to stage "The Tempest", there really was nowhere to seat an audience. Always resourceful she prospected alternatives, one of which was on the opposite side of the bay. Then, looking into the gully above the Minack Rock she said "I wonder if we could make a stage here?". With the benefit of decades of hindsight and with her remarkable Theatre spread out below, the answerwas clearly "Yes!" But that first winter was harsh. It took six months for Rowena and two Cornish craftsmen to build a simple stage and some rough seating.
The first performance of "The Tempest" in the summer of 1932 was lit by batteries, car headlights and the feeble power brought down from Minack House.
Everyone collected their tickets at a table in the garden before clambering down the gorse lined path.
Then, as the moon shone across the bay, the magic that is The Minack Theatre touched its first audience.
Shakespeare's great poetry complemented by live music in this idyllic setting prompted an article in "The Times". Rowena Cade realised that she had started something that just had to continue.
The Master Builder
Rowena Cade was already thirty eight when she undertook to provide a stage for "The Tempest". Until that moment the nearest she had come to manual work was sewing and mucking out horses. During that first winter of 1931-32, she laboured as apprentice to her gardener Billy Rawlings and his mate Charles Thomas Angove.
Using the skills of the two men, granite was cut by hand from a pile of tumbled boulders. Stones were inched into place. The terraces were in-filled with earth, small stones and pebbles shovelled down from the higher ledges. All this work took place on the slope above a sheer drop into the Atlantic. Luckily the only "men overboard" were a few stones and one wheelbarrow. Thus the Minack Theatre grew from Rowena's commitment that one show should go on.
Over the next seven years there were many improvements and extensions. Then, with the coming of World War II, it seemed as though all the back-breaking work might have been wasted. When peace returned, Rowena looked out over a ravaged Theatre. The Army, Gainsborough's film unit and prisoners of war sent in to clear the coastal defences had reduced it back to what it had been in 1932.
Yet, determined as ever, Rowena slowly brought the Minack magic back to life.
As its reputation spread, Rowena realised that she would have to separate the Theatre from her garden. Through the early fifties she and Billy Rawlings completed this huge task with granite walls, an access road, a car park and a flight of 90 steps up from the beach. When Billy died in 1966 Rowena inscribed the one granite seat in the whole auditorium as his memorial.
Rowena Cade had become "The Master Builder". Unable to afford the cost of granite, she had developed her own technique for working with cement. Using the tip of an old screwdriver she decorated the surfaces with lettering and intricate Celtic designs before they hardened. It was not just the artistic work that she did. Rowena fetched sand from Porthcurno beach: to start with in bags on her back and latterly in her cars, soon rusted out by the sea salt.
Tom Angove "Builder's Mate" from 1953, retiring in 1993, recalled how single handed Rowena carried twelve 15ft beams from the shoreline right up to the Theatre. Customs men looking for this "wreck" from a Spanish freighter met her on the beach. Challenged as to whether she had seen the timber, Rowena admitted that she had taken up some wood that morning. She suggested that the men should come and see it. Concluding that such a frail looking woman could not have lifted what they were looking for, they went on their way. "I didn't tell them a lie now did I?" remarked Rowena as she and Tom built the twelve beams into the new dressing rooms.
And so Rowena Cade, that "frail looking woman", worked on each winter in all weathers until she was in her mid-eighties. When she died, just short of her ninetieth birthday, she was still thinking of the future. She left elaborate sketches suggesting how the Theatre might be covered on the days when it rains. As yet no one has had the temerity or the cash to implement those plans!
The War Years
With the outbreak of World War II and with the threat of invasion the Minack Theatre fell silent. Actors and "props" were replaced by entanglements of barbed wire. Rowena Cade soon penetrated these defences. She regularly crawled under the wire to cut the grass. After the War she converted the gun post built to repel Hitler into the theatre's Box Office.
Threats of bombing and then the Blitz itself drove waves of evacuee children from London. Rowena Cade became their local billeting officer. Helping hundreds to settle in Cornish homes she dealt with the worries of the youngsters, their "host" families and anxious mothers three hundred miles away.
In 1944 pre-war publicity led to the Minack being chosen as a location for "Love Story" the Gainsborough film starring Stewart Grainger and Margaret Lockwood. The unit arrived complete with the grand piano that was to make the Cornish Rhapsody a wartime "hit". "Shooting" began, but storms forced the company to retreat. A mock up of the theatre constructed in a studio proved to be much more manageable.
Since "The Tempest" was first produced in 1932, the plays of Shakespeare have provided a central focus to every season at the Minack. Rowena Cade admired Shakespeare greatly. His poetry paints all the scenery that is needed: yet it is never upstaged by the theatre's dramatic backdrop.
While Shakespeare has stood the test of time, almost every other sort of entertainment has been tried at the Minack - comedy, tragedy, farce, opera, musical, Gilbert & Sullivan, mime, ballet, concert, gang show, son et lumière and male voice choir. Gilbert and Sullivan have been second only to Shakespeare in coming back year after year. To no one's surprise "The Pirates of Penzance" remains the clear favourite. A fortnight of plays specially for schools is staged annually when extra matinées are held with excited and enthusiastic Cornish children packing the Minack terraces.
During the summer season there is a new play for each of the 16 or 17 weeks. This variety benefits local audiences and holidaymakers alike. Some stalwarts come to every show. Equally, many who see live theatre here for the first time go on to support the performing arts in the areas where they live.
Good amateur theatrical groups are encouraged to play at the Minack Theatre. Among their number will you spot the stars of tomorrow? Michael York, Sheridan Morley, John Nettles, Sue Pollard, Sarah Brightman, Will Self, Jack Shepherd, Hugh Dancy and Charlotte Church have all appeared on the Minack's stage.
Books Must Balance
When Rowena Cade started work on the Theatre she probably did not worry about the cost. Soon she realised that the takings from each short season of plays were never enough to cover her running costs. As a result, Rowena never received a penny for what she did. Instead, she had to make good any annual shortfall using her own money.
In the 1950s Rowena Cade approached a London drama school and the National Trust, but neither was able to give her financial assistance. Then the Cornwall branch of the National Council of Social Services was persuaded to take on the challenge. Sadly, following three years of losses, they gave up and left Rowena to carry on alone. And that is what she did: gradually adding to the fabric; always working on a shoe string.
In 1976, when she was well over eighty, Rowena Cade gave the Minack Theatre to a Charitable Trust which was set up to receive it. A little later she bought a bungalow and some more land thereby providing the Theatre with its independent offices and a larger car park.
The Trustees extended the season of plays, built a Visitor Centre which is open all year round and enlarged the retailing operation. These moves attracted bigger audiences and at last the Theatre was able to pay its way.
Over the years there has been generous help from countless individuals, from commercial firms and from performing companies. Special thanks must go to "The Minack Theatre Society" which existed from 1959 to 2000. Their good work continues through the "Friends of the Minack Theatre". If you would like to know more about the "Friends", please go to the Theatre-Goers section of this site and click on the "Friends of Minack" button.
As to the future, the Trustees have clear objectives -
To preserve the magic of what Rowena Cade created while developing a fully equipped modern theatre. To attract large audiences and yet put on programmes that have real variety. To book new and sometimes inexperienced companies, while maintaining high standards of performance. To keep ticket prices low and yet generate the money needed to repair and improve the theatre.
All those who work for The Minack Theatre Trust are committed to achieving these aims and to maintaining the difficult but necessary balance between them.