"Guys and Dolls" - Photo: Julia Chalmers

Barbara Lewis reports on the Sterts Art Centre

I first heard about Sterts as I pondered prize-winning marrows and perfect dahlias at a horticultural society show at a Cornish village school. “Take a blanket and a serious cushion,” was the advice from a pillar of the local community with a serious behind.  A still better tip is to take an open mind to performances that whatever the weather are heart-warming. Any polish they lack, they more than make  up for in passion.

A former pig farm in the village of Upton Cross on Bodmin Moor, Sterts Arts Centre owes its existence to the dedication and vision of Ewart and Anne Sturrock.  They met at Bretton Hall College in Yorkshire, where Ewart studied theatre and Anne music. Ewart later took up a teaching post in Looe, Cornwall, and perceived “a need to provide an arts and environment centre designed to fulfil a long-existing desire for children, young people and adults to meet and work together”, as the Sterts website explains. In 1982, they bought the barns and outbuilding that originally belonged to the farmhouse they owned and set about transforming them into an arts centre.

Nearly three decades on, the Sturrocks have retired from the day-to-day running and Sterts is led by a charitable trust of volunteers. It still brings in visiting shows and stages summer, inhouse productions that unite all generations and various degrees of talent – from youth with huge potential to pensioners with huge enthusiasm.

This season’s  inhouse shows are Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, Wind in the Willows, a play with songs based on Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Guys and Dolls.  On the night of the horticultural show, a highly enjoyable version of Guys and Dolls, which runs until early September, was playing with a cast ranging in age from 14 to 76, reflecting a decision to represent the whole of Sterts’ theatrical community. For some shows, Sterts integrates performers with learning difficulties. Plymouth English teacher Peter Woodward gave firm direction, while Jane Warwick, who job-shares the position of head of music from Liskeard School and Community College, vigorously coordinated a professional orchestra with the stage action.

Investing some of the limited budget in musicians is a wise decision taken several seasons ago as “the best way to go to ensure quality” to quote Woodward.  Funding is always an issue, but Sterts has found an innovative solution in the form of solar panels provided with a grant from Cornwall Council matched by private funding.  “As far as I know, we are the first theatre that has managed to get its solar panels fully funded,” Woodward said, adding he had been approached for advice by other arts organisations. The theatre now has free solar power and expects to earn £1,000 per year from the grid.

Sterts has also launched an appeal to raise £50,000 for a new canopy to replace the one that has been sheltering the outdoor summer audiences since 1994.  The summer season runs from May to September when it closes with a Last Night of the Proms that coincides with the Albert Hall event.   The first outdoor summer show back in June 1990 was truly outdoor.  Tony Hazzard took the title role in Othello, directed by Ewart, before an audience of hundreds sheltering beneath umbrellas.

They surely never dreamt the theatre lights and theatre funding would one day be solar-powered!

Barbara Lewis.