Outdoor theatre is an essential part of any Cornish summer, a tradition that can be traced back quite literally hundreds of years. The long, lazy summer evenings are only made more blissful and entertaining by finding a grassy seat or a spot for your deckchair, rolling out the picnic rug and being transported to another world by some of the most ingenious theatre companies in the country.
The Cornish landscape has so many stories to tell - fantastical legends, tales of smugglers and pirates, memories of dynamic past industries and the ghosts of its resourceful people, all creating a wealth of powerful narratives from which the arts and theatre can draw.
The joy of outdoor theatre
Watching an open air performance is a magical experience in so many ways. There is something special about being surrounded by nature and the elements, it adds another beautiful, unpredictable dimension to any show. The actors and directors often draw on their wild surroundings, both in a physical and spiritual sense, making for clever, heartfelt and inventive performances.
And there is a feeling of freedom, for both performers and audiences, a kind of ‘we are all in this together’ attitude that you just don’t find when you are watching a play on an indoor stage.
So, as we delve into summer, we’ve put together a guide to some of the finest locations to watch live performances in the open air and the wonderful local theatre groups that are making the magic happen!
Probably Cornwall’s most famous performance space, the Minack Theatre is a bright gem, truly a place like no other. Built into the cliff face above the stunning Porthcurno beach it was the brain-child of Rowena Cade who did much of the work herself by hand, beginning in the 1930s.
Every season from Easter to September, theatre companies from across the UK and further afield flock to perform at this unique location and audiences are treated to an exceptional theatre experience. Each play is backdropped by the dramatic Cornish coast and ever-changing sea, with dolphins often making unplanned cameos for the delighted audience.
The theatre itself is idyllic and well worth a visit even if you don’t catch a show. It is surrounded by gardens filled with sub-tropical plants and there is an exhibition centre which tells the story of this magical place, along with a café offering refreshments.
(Reserved disabled parking is available for visitors with individual requirements as well as ramped access to all the visitor facilities on the site, however the main auditorium and stage are only accessible via long flights of steps.)
Tucked away in the sheltered grounds of Penlee Park in Penzance, this little theatre has been putting on outdoor performances since 1948. Enclosed within high privet hedges, Penlee Park Theatre has the feeling of a secret garden. The original stage was built of wooden beer crates but these days the actors perform on a raised platform of granite and grass.
There is enough space here to seat an audience of around 300 people, though you may be asked to bring your own chair. A varied programme of shows can be enjoyed throughout the summer months, from Shakespeare to musicals.
Food and drink are available at every show and there is also an excellent art museum within the park. Parking and toilet facilities are offsite. The theatre has disabled access, though the ground is uneven and assistance may be required.
Trebah is one of the great gardens of Cornwall. This historic estate huddles in a sheltered valley close to the Helford River. Four miles of footpaths weave through subtropical gardens, down to a small private beach. There are 100-year-old magnolias, rhododendrons and camellias as well as a magnificent giant Gunnera forest, and tucked away in the heart of it all is the Trebah Garden Amphitheatre.
This custom built entertainment space can seat around 300 people and opened in 2013. Since then it has played host to everything from music and theatre, to puppetry, stand-up comedy and dance. Although Trebah Garden is passionate about supporting Cornish performing arts, they also welcome national and international artists to this inspirational location.
Despite the amphitheatre providing a brilliant stage, some shows by their design spill out into the gardens too, taking advantage of the lush surroundings to provide stunning backdrops for promenade performances.
There is an onsite café available. Disabled access available, call ahead to confirm.
Sterts is a canopied amphitheatre nestled in the wilds of Bodmin Moor and has to be one of the most unusual theatrical settings in the UK. Able to seat an audience of 400, the theatre was the brainchild of Ewart and Ann Sturrock who converted an old pig farm into a hive of artistic activity. The addition of the canopy roof a few years ago now allows shows to continue whatever the weather while still retaining that open-air feel.
When Sterts opened in 1990 it was very much as a community project, aiming to encourage local people, especially the young, to get involved with the arts, and to this day the theatre is still run by a group of enthusiastic volunteers.
Performances here range from local productions to musicals and nationally renowned comedians such as Jo Brand and Ed Byrne. Expect the unexpected at this unique location.
Snacks and drinks are available. Reserved parking, wheelchair access and toilet facilities are provided for visitors with individual requirements.
The same family has owned the Bedruthan Hotel and Spa near Mawgan Porth for over 60 years and they have always prided themselves on their connections with the local arts scene. On summer evenings in recent years the hotel has started welcoming lucky audiences to its stunning cliff-top lawn for pop-up theatre performances.
With food stalls and a bar offering the finest in local produce to sample, these events are a real sensation for all your senses. Watch the sun set over the sea on Cornwall’s dramatic north coast as a different kind of drama (or comedy!) unfolds on stage.
Access is available for those with individual requirements.
With so many magical locations to choose from it is little wonder that open air performances are something that Cornwall has become world famous for, but it is also important to remember that this is not a modern invention. Cornwall has a long tradition of outdoor theatre going back many hundreds of years and at Plen an Gwari in St just in Penwith you can really get close to that vivid history.
This man-made grass enclosure in the centre of this little town is arguably the UK’s oldest working theatre space, dating back to the medieval period, and in 2021 The Ordinalia, a trilogy of six hundred year old Cornish plays, the oldest surviving plays in Britain, will be performed there.
Parking and other facilities are available in St Just.
Visiting more ancient amphitheatres
Plen an Gwari is just one of many so called ‘playing places’ and preaching pits found around Cornwall. Others that hold occasional performances and can be visited as interesting historical sites can be found at Indian Queens and St Newlyn East, as well as the superb mediaeval Perran Round near the hamlet of Rose.
These amphitheatres were often built on the site of Iron Age enclosures and were used as meeting places, market places and for hosting plays. The wonderful Gwennap Pit, not far from Redruth, was built in the 18th century over a large depression made by mining. John Wesley, the father of Methodism, preached at this tiered amphitheatre several times. The pit can seat 1,500 people comfortably, but it is said that on one occasion as many as 32,000 people came to hear Wesley speak.
By their nature open air performances and the creative companies that produce them have the freedom to move around the countryside, taking advantage of Cornwall’s wild and wonderful scenery. New venues are constantly popping up in unexpected places and that is half the fun.
Locations such as the Lost Gardens of Heligan, Tregrehan Garden near Par, the Eden Project, Tehidy Woods and Carn Marth Amphitheatre are just a handful of the atmospheric locations that have seen pop-up performances, as well as huge theatrical events, over the years. It is just a case of keeping an open mind, and your eyes peeled, to be part of one of these memorable outdoor experiences.
Cornish outdoor theatre companies
Cornwall has been blessed with a seemingly endless supply of creativity. There is something about the wild beauty of the area that brings out people’s artistic ingenuity, and in recent years this has produced a number of amazing theatre companies that have achieved national acclaim for their work. Sadly 2021 saw the end of Kneehigh Theatre after more than 40 years of mesmerising performances but, never fear, there is still an enormous wealth of talent just waiting to entertain you. Here are just a few:
Miracle Theatre have been touring Cornwall and the wider UK showcasing their brilliant brand of original, inventive, comic theatre since 1979. Taking their name from the ancient Cornish miracle plays, this company has a beloved place in the hearts of those who grew up watching their shows. Their joyful, visually arresting style aims to bring big theatre to little venues, something they achieve again and again.
Perhaps one of Cornwall smaller and less well known theatre groups, Rogue Theatre, nevertheless has an excellent reputation for creating immersive entertainment in wild places. In recent years they have made the atmospheric Tehidy Woods their unofficial home, producing stunning, visually arresting shows amongst the trees both during daylight hours and after dark.
WildWorks are adept at crafting theatrical experiences tailored to whichever site they chose. From beaches to castles, disused quarries to woodland, wherever they are they aim to take their audiences on an emotional journey, delivering spectacular shows time and time again. Cornwall is this group’s spiritual home and much of their work takes inspiration from the culture and geology that surrounds them. WildWorks performances often promenade, taking the audience on a journey in more ways than one.
And for something a little different . . .
Open air cinemas
Watching a classic film on the big screen surrounded by sights and sounds of nature is the latest trend in outdoor entertainment. This summer blockbusters such as Jaws, Dirty Dancing, Jurassic Park, The Goonies and Grease can all be enjoyed at a number of pop-up outdoor screens or drive-ins around Cornwall.
You can now watch movies from the comfort of your car on a cliff top at Watergate Bay or at Caerhays beach, at Scorrier House near Redruth or the Sunset Drive-in near St Austell. Alternatively, why not discover an open air cinema experience at some wonderful locations including Jubilee Pool in Penzance or on the sands of Great Western Beach near Newquay. Most venues provide refreshments and the screenings begin after dark, usually around 9.30pm.
For details and to book go to Skylight Cinema.
Be prepared & don’t mention the weather!
As with any event happening outside, the one thing that can’t be controlled is our changeable Cornish weather. At most venues the show will go on unless things get dangerously inclement so the best way to make sure you still have fun is to be prepared.
- Take extra layers or a blanket for when the sun goes down
- A hat and sunscreen is always a good idea
- Take waterproofs and an umbrella just in case
- A chilled bottle of something fizzy or a flask filled with your favourite hot drink can work wonders
- Be prepared to follow the action, outdoor performances often involve walking from one location to another.
- Don’t forget your folding chair or a cushion
- Remember whatever happens, it is all part of the outdoor theatre experience!
If this article has inspired you then why not discover a cosy self-catering holiday cottage in Cornwall to stay in while you plan your next outdoor theatre adventure!