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Page last updated at 14:17 GMT, Thursday, 29 April 2010 15:17 UK
Peter Cheeseman, New Vic theatre director, dies
Peter Cheeseman
Peter Cheeseman will always be remembered as a pioneering director

One of North Staffordshire's greatest adopted sons, theatre director Peter Cheeseman, has died.

The internationally celebrated stage practitioner passed away on Tuesday, 27 April after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease. He was 78.

He helped to set up The Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent and its successor The New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Peter was made a CBE for his services to drama.

In 1998, Peter retired after 36 years as director of the theatre.

A who's who of acting

In the 1960s and 1970s, Peter built his reputation and that of the theatre through ensemble working with actors.

The list of famous actors with whom he worked includes Bob Hoskins, Ben Kingsley, Robert Powell, Gerda Stevenson and Ken Campbell.

Film director Mike Leigh was also an actor in the Victoria Theatre company during the 1960s.

He says of that time: "Working with Peter was a special and creative time. The spirit in which we worked, to be political and truthful, was down to him.

"He was a genius, a vagabond, a facilitator. What he achieved is colossal and he will be remembered with great respect and love."

Local issues on the stage

Peter was also responsible for the creation of a series of drama documentaries that reflected the lives and history of the working people of North Staffordshire. These included The Jolly Potters, The Knotty, Nice Girls, and The Dirty Hill.

Scene from The Knotty
Many of Cheeseman's dramas highlighted local issues

Perhaps the most famous was the campaigning Fight For Shelton Bar - Peter's characteristic response to the threatened closure of the steel works a couple of miles from the theatre.

The New Vic

The Victoria Theatre was always meant to be a temporary home for the company and, in 1986, Peter achieved a long-held ambition with the opening of the New Vic Theatre.

The New Vic was Europe's first purpose-built theatre-in-the-round and is located just a mile from the original Victoria Theatre.

Theresa Heskins, current Artistic Director of the New Vic, says: "Peter's determination to create theatre for and inspired by ordinary people produced a great legacy: one of the most remarkable theatre buildings in the country.

"The New Vic's work, both in our in-the-round auditorium and throughout the broader community, will be a lasting tribute to Peter's vision of a theatre that is accessible, inclusive and democratic."

When Peter met Alan

Peter had been part of Stephen Joseph's pioneering Scarborough-based theatre-in-the-round touring company in the 1950s and early 60s. It was here he first met Alan Ayckbourn.

When the company decided to put down roots in 1962, Peter took on its leadership at the Victoria Theatre, a converted former cinema in Stoke-on-Trent. Alan was one of its founding members.

Alan Ayckbourn says: "Peter was very special. The average theatre actor or director over the course of their working life may confidently expect to visit a large part of the British Isles; if they're lucky the world, too.

"Unusually, Peter devoted himself to a single place. He gave his life to it. He believed that theatre ought to spring from and reflect the community it belonged to. He stayed true to that belief and was an inspiration to many of his peers.

"The Potteries should be grateful for his years of devotion."

Tributes

You can leave your tributes by emailing us: staffordshire@bbc.co.uk

I worked with Peter Cheeseman in 1966/67 with the up and coming Bob Powell and Ben Kingsley. I was but a lowly ASM but he was an inspiration to all of us; no matter what our function everyone was important. I was lucky to work on some truly remarkable productions and his skill was not only to get the best from his actors and crew but also to enthuse the local population who really did believe 'the Vic' was their theatre and who flocked to productions in their droves.
We had no money, we worked ridiculous hours and the facilities wouldn't pass basic health and safety today but we did it because we all truly believed in Peter Cheeseman, and we were never disappointed. My sympathies and condolences to his family - and thank you for the opportunity I was afforded by Peter.
David Way, Warwick

I worked a volunteer at the old Vic Theatre and even taking tickets and showing people to their seats. I and other 'Vic Vols' felt we were part of something important. They should rename the New Vic after Peter. What he did for theatre in the Potteries was priceless.
I wrote this years later remembering those times.
Donal Thompson, Madrid

When I met him for a project I was doing, I was struck by just how much he had in his head. He reeled off a history of theatre, names and locations of contacts, suggestions for developing my ideas... and also (he had his irascible side!) a frustration and irritation with anything that seemed less than well thought-out.
It always seemed strange to me that a man with an international reputation - there were books about his pioneering work - should have stayed for nearly all his life in Stoke, but that was him.
Gary Sloan

I was a Vic Vol at the original Vic in the early to mid 70s, having taken over from my older sister when she went to university; I carried on even when I came back for holidays while I was a university student. I remember Peter, always ambling amiably around in that 'trademark woolly jumper', and his monthly invitations to spare Vols to go up to his office and help to stuff mailings into envelopes. I'm sure working as a Vol helped to fire my love of theatre, leading me to take on an ASM role in my university Gilbert & Sullivan society, and later to sing in it.
Marion Beet, London.




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