Protect the legions in the regions: Repertory theatres nationwide are under threat of closure due to a change in Arts Council policy. Peter Cheeseman is alarmed

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The future of the structure of British regional theatre is threatened. The news that the Liverpool Everyman Theatre may be reduced to a touring venue, added to the existing half-loss of the Playhouse, is news of cultural catastrophe for a great regional city.

But worse appears to be in store. This weekend's announcement that the Arts Council wishes to compensate for its forthcoming government grant cut and create a new resource to look after the needs of contemporary dance and the visual arts at the expense of the draft budget means that the time has come - astonishingly to me - to fight for the very notion of the British repertory theatre. It is the concept itself which would appear to be questioned by what we have experienced and what we know to be threatened.

I have dedicated an entire professional lifetime to what used to be called 'a provincial rep' and what we now call 'a regional building-based producing theatre'. Let me, for brevity, continue to call it rep and try to remove the pejorative overtones from the word. First of all, the history of rep is important, because in our separate theatres all over the country we know we inherit and develop a set of social and cultural policies deeply rooted in the cultural idealism of the last 100 years.

Stand by the Old Vic canopy at the corner of the Cut in south-east London and read Emma Cons' memorial plaque. Her selfless dedication to the poor people of London logically extended to their spiritual and cultural welfare and was embodied in the foundation of that great old theatre.

Miss Horniman in Dublin and Manchester, Barry Jackson in Birmingham - with his theatre's motto 'to serve an art instead of making that art serve a commercial purpose' - extended these ideals beyond the capital. They also added the richness of a preoccupation with regional and individual distinctiveness that is now so important to us. These ideas and ideals developed before and between the world wars in a growing structure of individual reps.

World War II added a new dimension to the cultural pioneering embodied in the repertory movement. I read J B Priestley's Theatre Outlook as a university student in the Fifties and was inspired by his accounts of wartime Cema tours of great Shakespearian performances to village halls and his challenge, in 1945, to the Government and the new Arts Council: 'Let us then give the theatre, which we can all share, its proper place in our new democratic society, honour and administer its good work, and watch it brighten in our affection.'

The Arts Council Drama Department inherited the ideals of the repertory movement and at last the means to give its theatres some kind of security.

A rep is a hugely potent institution in a regional community. It is the only kind of building given over to the arts where artists of many kinds work together, creating the complex structure of a theatre production, involving so many skills and so much fierce dedication to the task. Here are actors and writers, composers and musicians, designers and painters, along with directors and propmakers, stage managers and professional publicity workers. The other arts have no such buildings in the country. There are no symphonies created in Symphony Hall. But our rep buildings embody representatives of all the arts in their staff. The experience of the play leads outwards to novels, to poetry, to music, to painting, to sculpture.

The presence of this unique creative activity and therefore this unique creative resource within a regional community is the most precious cultural and educational possession that community can have. We who work in them know that there is an endlessly renewing colloquy between theatre and community. We live in and draw on the distinctive resources of our local community. We reflect its life on our stages. The community draws delight, energy, information, inspiration from our productions, and a sense of its own identity, its own distinctiveness. Added to which, the presence of our creative workers in the town can inspire and enhance the work of teachers and students, of museum workers, of workers in the health service, of Methodist lay preachers, of colliers, steelworkers and potters. In every town where a rep exists, the investment of its community in that building, compounded over the years of achieving it and then sustaining it, is almost unmeasurable. This investment of labour, of love, of money has come from virtually every sector of the community over many years. Their achievement in our contemporary cultural climate is an irreplaceable one. The scale of the achievement over the difficulties encountered represents one of the most formidable tasks to be undertaken by any community. I would emphatically claim it is also unrepeatable within several generations.

To sweep aside such achievements for the sake of temporary shortage of funds, or even worse, for some theoretical aesthetic notion, is an act of extraordinary irresponsibility. It must be resisted. I don't believe there is a single such theatre that we can do without. There are several threatened that we must save. There are several half-gone that we must haul back. Far too much is at stake in a great and long-term cultural mission that has really only just begun. It must not be kicked aside, like some temporary artistic fad.

Peter Cheeseman is the theatre director of the New Victoria Theatre, North Staffordshire