Thanks to one man's vision, theatre has thrived in the Potteries and a community has found its voice. Jeffrey Wainwright bids farewell to a well-rounded talent
The evanescence of theatre means that memories can rarely be held up to scrutiny. They are often sketchy, and hindsight might not grant them any great significance in theatrical history or even within their immediate context. Many of my first, and so most important, recollections date back to the early 1960s and to a temporary theatre-in-the-round in the Town Hall, Newcastle-under-Lyne. It was there that I saw the petrifyingly sexy Dona Martyn as Strindberg's Miss Julie, and some hilarious new comedies by "Roland Allen", who doubled as the company's leading actor, one Alan Ayckbourn.

In 1962 this magical little arena re-established itself in a converted cinema, the Victoria, across the border in Stoke-on-Trent - a space that soared into immensity one night as Ron Daniels and Fiona Walker "let time try" their love as Orlando and Rosalind. That, Peter Cheeseman recalls, was when actors could rarely sing properly, and so a young Ben Kingsley as Amiens was a prodigy.

I remember too the anxiety on the face of Christopher Martin as a young pikeman awaiting the Royalist cavalry charge at Naseby in Staffordshire Rebels, the second of the "musical documentaries" that were to make the Vic's reputation. Daniels, Kingsley, Robert Powell and Anton Vogel were also in the cast, but somehow I best remember Martin, whose connection with the Vic still continues today, singing out "The gentry are all round, stand up now, stand up now."

The vision of that first theatre-in-the-round belonged to the late Stephen Joseph (after whom Ayckbourn was to name his Scarborough base), but when all immediate hope of a purpose-built theatre disappeared, it was Peter Cheeseman who, in 1962, founded the Vic. He has been director there ever since and will have over 140 productions to his name when his valedictory production of The Tempest opens next month.

No one in regional theatre comes close to Cheeseman in terms of long- term devotion to a single theatre and to its place in its own community. Having found his patch in the Potteries, he has stuck to three commitments: performances in the round; a strong repertoire of classics and new work; and close identification with the history and present problems of North Staffordshire.

The first of these meant that in 1986 the district gained Europe's first purpose-built theatre-in-the-round, 605 seats within a handsome octagonal building. There were some, Cheeseman recalls, who had said, "You'll want a proper theatre now, Peter," but he had the authority and experience to insist on what turned out to be as fine a space as any in the country.

Along with the standard of actors - they can all sing now - Cheeseman thinks that repertoire has been the area of greatest improvement in regional theatre in his time. He is unsentimental about the "drivel" of old-style weekly rep - "all thrillers and West End comedies". His first season, 1962-63, featured five new plays, including work by Ayckbourn and Alan Plater, along with Beckett, Pinter, Anouilh and Bolt. Twenty years later the mix was much the same: new work from Peter Terson and Ken Campbell alongside Mother Courage, The Merchant of Venice and Pygmalion. Astoundingly, up to 1986 over 40 per cent of the "old" Vic's shows were new work.

But Cheeseman and his theatre are best known for the 11 documentaries on local history and local issues. Besides Rebels, the historical ones have dealt with the pottery and mining industries in the area, Methodism, the Second World War, and the federation of the Six (not five) Towns. Most celebrated of all was The Knotty, with its famous surveyors' pole- dance illustrating the branching of the railway across North Staffs.

In 1974, Fight for Shelton Bar!, a contribution to the struggle to keep a local steelworks open, was the first on topical issues. The opening nights of The Dirty Hill (1990) - arguing both sides of a proposal for an open-cast site - and Nice Girls (1993) - on the efforts of women to save Hem Heath colliery - crackled with the special electricity of the real antagonists watching themselves portrayed on stage - and watching one another across the auditorium.

Cheeseman has always seen these shows as "the most useful political job the theatre can do - to reflect the life of the district in such a way that we, its voters in a democracy, really believe that we are important and that important things happen here".

In subject-matter the documentaries never much bothered to interest anyone beyond Uttoxeter (though several were in fact invited abroad) but formally they advanced enormously one of the major styles of post-war theatre. Cheeseman himself makes no great claim for this and honours a variety of inspirations, especially the American "living newspaper" theatre, Joan Littlewood's Oh, What a Lovely War, Charles Parker's magnificent radio ballads, the episodic and mixed-media style of Brecht, and, above all, the cinema. But this mix of narration, mime, song and improvised illusion, along with dramatic scenes, has now entered the bloodstream of contemporary theatre.

One aspect Cheeseman does claim as the Vic's own is the "puritanism" with which he rejected textual invention in favour of the "authenticity" of primary sources, especially recorded speech. "Listen, listen," Charles Chilton told him, "to the richness of people's speech". Many of the Vic's most moving effects have relied on the interpolation of the recorded voice of the real person we are watching portrayed on stage, so providing arresting evidence of the strange doubleness of theatrical illusion: its existence in its own right and its respect for the outside world.

Sadly, though, Cheeseman is leaving his post more troubled than fulfilled. The chronic underfunding of the arts may, he believes, mean the irrecoverable loss of as many as 10 regional theatres this year, "the most important cultural institutions in the country". Unable to compete on price, hopelessly outgunned in marketing, the theatre is losing the battle for young audiences to the monoculture of the multiplexes. Having seen at the beginning of his career the development of a student audience eager for the kind of repertoire he describes, fostered by teachers with the requisite resources and motivation, he now sees that same audience dwindling to the point where it is virtually impossible to risk new work. The understanding that theatre is part of "education, education, education", as well as the base of a whole industry whose continuity runs unbroken from Saturday- morning children's workshops to Oscar nominations, is being lost.

But Cheeseman continues to fight for the theatre at every level. The day I met him, in his role as chair of the National Council for Drama Training, he had just entertained officials from Baroness Blackstone's department in an effort to convince the Government of the need for statutory grant support to ensure that talent, not ability to pay, decides who goes to drama school. Asked what it takes to do his job, he first cites a nearby address - his is "230 paces away" and you can imagine him slipping across at midnight to check the bar's stock of lemon slices; more seriously, he says it takes "love and thoroughness" - qualities for which I, like countless other regular and occasional theatregoers from the Potteries, have had reason to be grateful over the past 36 years.

`The Tempest' opens at the New Vic, North Staffs, 4 March: 01782 717962