Kirsteen McNish is a creative arts curator, arts consultant and writer, often collaborating with artists, writers, filmmakers and poets in dramatic locations. Below, she shares a preview for an event she has curated called Sea Dreams, which will take place on Fri 20 May at the Minack Theatre – an open-air setting perched on the rugged cliffs of Southwest Cornwall.

As an events curator I’m always looking for connections between people, places and stories, and the opportunity to curate multi-arts happenings in unusual places. The symbolic venue of the Minack Theatre, perched on a rocky outcrop over the sea in Penzance, Cornwall, is somewhere I have dreamt of, a place that has long hovered on the periphery of my imagination. 

Sea Dreams is an event curated by myself and the Minack Theatre in response to the elements of water, air, and earth: the spaces between material and non-material worlds, and storytelling. On Fri 20 May, singer-songwriter Kathryn Joseph, violinist Anna Phoebe and Faber poet Rachael Allen will perform in a one-off event of music and words overlooking the Atlantic ocean, when the moon swells and the waves rise.

It also attempts to capture the pull the sea holds in our collective imagination, given its innumerable powers. It felt important to honour the creative vision of the theatre’s iconic founder, Rowena Cade and the 90th anniversary of the theatre this year, as I believe she was both a master builder and an architect of dreams. The director of the theatre, Zoe Curnow, saw the potential in this proposal and enabled this reverie to transform into reality.

Rowena Cade created the Minack Theatre after she moved to Cornwall just after the First World War and bought the headland for just £100, setting out determinedly to make her imaginings real. Alongside her dear friend and gardener Billy Rawlings, she built the theatre through sheer graft, hauling stones up to the cliffside from Porthcurno beach below. Using hand tools and the odd stick of dynamite to split stubborn rock, they mixed concrete with the stone to create the structure. Rowena Cade knew how to make the most of the sunrise and sunsets, positioning the columns and arches as portals to the ocean and sky. Each seat bears individual inscriptions, cascading fluidly towards the sea. Lighting the early performances with car battery lights and torches, the theatre fittingly opened with The Tempest. Tributes to its founder will be woven atmospherically in simple motifs throughout Sea Dreams.  

I specifically want this event to be stripped of artifice, the focus essentially on the artists instruments and voices. Taking away distractions and stagecraft, the artists draw closer to the audience and the landscape’s inherent rhythms. “The Minack is a hugely special place for me, having grown up an hour or so up the road,” says poet Rachael Allen. “Its position carved into a cliff on the sea edge has always felt like a gorgeous statement on what it means to make and perform, elemental and minimal.” Her collection Kingdomland is a visceral exploration of womanhood, place, identity and inner conflict. Her poetry, like the ocean, oscillates between being powerfully menacing and mirror calm and benign. She has a deep connection to this part of the county and so it feels fitting that she opens the show, embodying the element of water.

Spending swathes of time around the Angus coastline in Scotland helped shape Kathryn Joseph’s new work, and the aspect of the Minack has long held a vivid place in her imagination. Kathryn has a bewitching ability to create intimacy with her audiences and you witness the strength of emotion that rolls back at her in live shows, with her transfixing lyrics and gaze rooting you to the spot. Her new work seems to conjure strength and resilience with its complex layers and jagged edges of human experience exposed like the cliffs to the sea. When she first shared her haunting recording of a song with me last year, “Only The Sound Of The Sea Could Save Them” from the album For You Who Are The Wronged, it felt like time suddenly suspended like a raindrop on a windowpane. 

The album was recorded in a converted schoolhouse on Loch Linnhe and looks across the water to Fort William. “I knew I wanted to be somewhere unique to make this record, but I had no idea it would affect me the way it did,” Kathryn says. “Forty herons were nesting in the trees behind the studio and the noise they made was both unsettling, strange and beautiful.” This place gave her the quiet seclusion she needed and feels this body of water has seeped into the lifeblood of the recordings. “Getting to record these songs whilst staring at the water right in front of me was a huge gift. I hope that permeates the songs we made there and will get to perform at the Minack – somehow connecting the Loch to the Atlantic ocean.”

Anna-Phoebe is a captivating performer who essentially becomes her instrument as you watch her play. Her album Sea Souls was written by the Kent Coast, but at the Minack she’ll honour the decades of voices that have echoed through the ether; she’ll also draw from scientific data taken from the cosmos weaving this into her compositions, looking down on earth from the air. “I’m endlessly intrigued by the notion of ‘Cosmic Vertigo’, a term I learned from professor Mark McCaughrean of the European Space Agency.” she explains. “It describes these fleeting moments when we suddenly feel connected to something vast and incomprehensible - as if time has arrested and in that one moment we are connected to past, present, and future.” When I perform, I’m allowing vulnerability in and embracing feelings of both wonder and awe. Playing music allows me to explore and process these ideas from an intuitive place.” 

The siren call of the finale will be a very special collaborative effort where the artists join on stage together to commune under the stars and blend their work. Aside from a principle of three I often apply to the projects I work with - a trinity of facts compelled me around this place. Cornwall juts out 90 miles into the Atlantic ocean with the Minack Theatre at its tip, 90 steps lead to the stage from the beach, and this year it marks 90 years since the theatre was built. The circular stage appears to symbolise the earth on its axis, the changing of the seasons and a reminder that the passing of time is crucial for the challenges we face with climate change.

Kirsteen McNish is a multi-arts curator, arts consultant and writer whose work can be mainly found at Caught By The River.

Images from top: painting of Minack Cliff Theatre, Porthcurno, courtesy of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust. Black and white photograph of Rowena Cade and photograph of high view courtesy of The Minack Theatre. 

Read more about singer-songwriter Kathryn Joseph, violinist Anna Phoebe and Faber poet Rachael Allen

To book tickets for this one-off event, see the Minack Theatre website. 

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