Peter Cheeseman’s legacy is the New Vic Theatre in Stoke, the in-the-round space where he was artistic director, and the musical documentary style he championed.
He was arguably the most influential director in British regional theatre in the latter half of the 20th century.
Cheeseman made regional theatre important. Offers to direct for the RSC and for many London theatres were repeatedly turned down.
His approach to theatre-making influenced many directors, including Mike Leigh and Rob Swain. He staged the early work of Alan Ayckbourn, Peter Terson, Peter Whelan and many others and encouraged Robert Powell, Ben Kingsley and Ken Campbell with their acting.
Born in Portsmouth, on January 27, 1932, Cheesman’s father’s postings with the air ministry had the family moving many times and the young Cheeseman attended ten schools.
His mother got him interested in amateur dramatics partly because he was hanging round the streets and in danger of becoming, as he himself put it, “a naughty teenager”.
Cheeseman began his theatrical career at Derby Playhouse. He met Stephen Joseph, an advocate of in-the-round theatre, at a regional theatre conference and that was a turning point.
When he saw Joseph’s in-the-round stage being set up in a hall in Wellingborough, he was captivated. The potency of the human figure in that space gripped his imagination.
Cheeseman joined Joseph’s company, which was then based in Scarborough, and he ran the touring arm. Joseph wanted a permanent home for in-the-round theatre in the Stoke area. The two men discovered an old cinema which became the Victoria Theatre.
In 1986 the New Vic was opened, the first purpose-built theatre-in-the round in Europe. Cheeseman ran both theatres for 36 years.
Cheeseman’s documentary theatre style was inspired by the living newspaper dramas of the Unity Theatre and the work of Joan Littlewood. His actors went out into the community to research matters of historical or immediate interest.
His most popular show The Knotty looked at the life and death of the local railway, The Fight for Sheldon Bar concerned the closing of a vast steel works near the theatre.
Short, stocky and neatly bearded Cheeseman looked an intellectual but despised intellectual snobbery. He considered himself a man of action rather than words. He was an ardent, outspoken socialist. People mattered to him.
“Theatre has a political dimension but I didn’t think you could use it to persuade people to vote Labour,” he said. “I thought that the most important thing we could do as a theatre was to make people more aware of their own importance.
“In a democratic society you don’t want people thinking history is something that happened elsewhere. ‘My vote doesn’t matter’. No, history happens here. We fought in the war. We took part in the Chartist riots – so our vote bloody well counts”.
Cheeseman helped establish the National Council for Drama Training and spent the first eight years of his retirement as its chair. He also helped set up the MFA Theatre Directing course at Birkbeck College, London, which was a cooperative project with the NCDT. He was appointed CBE in 1998.
Peter Barrie Cheeseman died on April 27, aged 78, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by his second wife and three daughters.
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