Peter Cheeseman, who has died aged 78, was a leading exponent of

documentary drama in the postwar British theatre and its most

influential practitioner of theatre-in-the-round; he was also the

longest-serving director of a regional theatre.

Cheeseman was doggedly indifferent to theatrical success in its

commercial, West End sense, to the popular appetite for stars and to the

influence of television. By turning a small, disused cinema on a street

corner in one of the grimmest parts of industrial Britain into the most

remarkable of repertory theatres, he earned it an international

reputation not only for creating its own plays but also for sustaining a


A disciple of the late Stephen Joseph, son of the comedienne Hermione

Gingold and pioneer of professional in-the-round performance, Cheeseman

espoused his master's theatrical principle of finding new authors to

write for a stage with an audience on all sides, adding his own belief

in the value of a local theatre which reflected local life and achievements.

While accepting that the majority of British playgoers were still

accustomed to a proscenium-arched stage (or a "stage picture") for their

theatrical experience, Cheeseman relished the chance to start from

scratch. In 1962, at Stoke-on-Trent, he opened a newly-converted

playhouse with a non-existent audience, building up business by

gradually acclimatising spectators to the novelty of sitting opposite

others and taking the absence of scenery for granted.

Another innovation was to develop a style of documentary play which the

company itself had created � sometimes with an author, sometimes without

� from its own research in the Potteries.

Surviving an attempt to depose him in 1967 which was blocked by local

protests, Cheeseman ran the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, for more

than 30 years, supervising its move in 1986 from Hartshill Road to a

statelier site at Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Small, bearded and stocky, with a predilection for woollen sweaters that

prompted Simon Hoggart to dub him the "furry caterpillar", Cheeseman was

determined that his vision of a people's theatre should be untainted by

intellectual snobbery or artistic elitism. He remained at heart an

academic � convinced, for example, that no actor could play an engine

driver without having interviewed an engine driver or inspected a

locomotive, or portray a teacher without returning to the classroom.

Peter Barrie Cheeseman was born in Portsmouth on January 27 1932 and

educated at 10 different schools before attending Sheffield University.

It was during his adolescent years as a playgoer at the Liverpool Unity

Theatre and a worker with the Merseyside Workers' Education Association

that the Living Newspaper style of theatrical presentation, a form of

documentary theatre imported from the United States, first impressed him.

After three years' National Service with the RAF in Scotland he made

what he used to call his one and only visit to Paris, visiting several

London theatres on the way, and was troubled in both capitals by the

fact that audiences were audiences of visitors: "The foyers were full of

people who were strangers to one another, and that seemed fundamentally


After directing his first professional productions � plays by Brecht and

Fernando Arrabal � at Derby Playhouse in 1959, he joined as manager

Stephen Joseph's peripatetic Studio Theatre Company, founded two years

earlier, when it was based at the Municipal Library, Scarborough.

But Joseph was looking for more permanent premises. After a trial season

at Newcastle-under-Lyme, with Cheeseman he toured the slag-heaps,

belching factory chimneys and desolate wastelands of the Six Towns

before coming across an abandoned cinema covered with peeling posters.

This was the Victoria, at Hartshill, Stoke-on-Trent, set in as bleak an

industrial landscape as any director of Cheeseman's temperament could

wish for. He was to be its artistic director while Joseph continued to

preach the gospel of theatre-in-the-round elsewhere.

To the 30-year-old Cheeseman, the sight � and the site � were inspiring.

"I felt I had to stay there. I don't think it's any good turning one's

back on the realities of 20th-century industrial life, however squalid,

and escaping to the countryside. You've got to live with what's there

and make sense of it."

Two factors stimulated him: first, the absence of any playgoing habit,

any prejudice about what a theatre should be or do; and secondly, the

area struck him as promisingly egalitarian. The pottery industry still

comprised small family businesses; craftsmen were still respected; and

there was no trace of what Cheeseman called the well-to-do middle class

from which other regional audiences were usually drawn. "We could start

absolutely from scratch," he said.

The company had been formed by Joseph in 1957 to explore both the

potential of theatre-in-the-round and playwriting for arena performance,

so Cheeseman tried to retain as permanent an ensemble as possible, with

regular or resident dramatists like Alan Ayckbourn (who had joined

Stephen Joseph as an actor in the 1950s), Peter Terson and Alan Plater.

Working closely with the company at rehearsal, they created a style of

staging sufficiently fluid and flexible to explore the individual talent

of each actor for, say, musicianship, mime, signing, dance or improvisation.

When Ayckbourn's Mr Whatnot proved so successful at Stoke that it was

bought for a London production in 1963, Ayckbourn, who had rarely seen

eye-to-eye with Cheeseman as a fellow director, especially on the

subject of "researching" a role, left the company.

Although, most fruitfully, Cheeseman later engaged Peter Terson as

resident playwright for the documentaries and literary adaptations, he

decided when Ayckbourn had gone that the company would be its own

author, along the lines of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, which had

recently done well with Oh, What a Lovely War!

The upshot was the first company musical documentary, The Jolly Potters

(1964), based on the early history of the Potteries. Other productions

included The Staffordshire Rebels (1965), The Knotty (1966), Six Into

One (1968) and Plain Jos (1980), with many other plays on local themes

or from local sources, including 17 from Terson.

Cheeseman's eagerness that his theatre should reflect local life

sometimes verged on the political. When a Staffordshire steelworks was

threatened with closure, he sent his actors out with tape recorders,

interviewing, filming, visiting factories, clubs and pubs, and editing

it all into a show which smacked more of journalism than the theatre.

If this approach struck a visitor as parochial, Cheeseman believed his

theatre should serve its parish, and he served it faithfully for nearly

40 years, retiring in 1998.

He was appointed CBE for his services to drama in the same year. For

eight years in retirement he was chairman of the National Council for

Drama Training.

In 2009 he received the Young Vic award in recognition of his

outstanding contribution to theatre-making in Britain and for a

lifetime's encouragement and inspiration to a younger generation.

His first wife, Joyce, wrote several of the Victoria's literary

adaptations, notably from the works of Arnold Bennett.

Peter Cheeseman, who died on April 27, is survived by his second wife,

Romy, whom he married in 1985, by two daughters from his first marriage

and another from his second. news, business, sport, the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Sunday Telegraph - Telegraph