IF ANYONE deserved to be known as Scottish theatre's first lady it was Joan Knight, who, until her retiral in 1993, was the mastermind behind the success of Perth Theatre. In a reign that spanned more than three decades, she brought to that charming playhouse a remarkable variety of work.

Although she was known for her wizardry in staging the easily acceptable Agatha Christie whodunnits along with other light fare including popular musicals, Joan made sure that Perth audiences were introduced to more demanding work, including that of certain contemporary writers (Tom Gallacher's Don Juan - arguably his finest play --was first seen at Perth, as was Good by C P Taylor).

Even the heavier works of Shakespeare took their place on the bill. Perth saw more than just the school curriculum plays like Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream: Measure for Measure was given a good showing on one occasion and in yet another weighty offering Joan presented the two Oedipus plays of Sophocles.

Nobody was better than Joan at choosing talented associates. Among her trainees she could count Mike Ockrent, Patrick Sandford and Andrew McKinnon.

Joan Knight's strength lay not just in her creativity and management skills, but also in a generous measure of charm and diplomacy. In the 1980s, when it became obvious that Perth Theatre, for all its period attractiveness, lacked all the backstage and front of house facilities which had become necessary to tempt audiences away from television, she approached the Gannochy Trust as a sponsor of her proposed extension programme.

In two stages she had all she wished for - refurbished auditorium and lavishly extended front of house as well as backstage improvements including a studio-theatre-cum-rehearsal space - virtually giving Perth a new theatre with no debts.

It has always been hard to imagine Joan Knight away from the world of theatres. I suspect that she dreamed of being born in a prop-basket, but in fact she was not. Joan came of farming, market gardening stock, but she remembered early visits to the theatre and to the operas toured by the Carl Rosa Company.

She was always acting, ``boring everyone stiff'', and absolutely determined to work in the theatre. In fact, it took her some years. First of all there was a typing job and work as a land army girl before she gained the speech and drama qualification that led to directing work for the WEA and eventually, at the age of 26, to a grant from Lancashire County Council which took her to the Bristol Old Vic School.

Her first real job was with the Midland Theatre Company, where she graduated from wardrobe mistress to stage manager and found life with a touring company incredibly hard work, not least when, as assistant director to Frank Dunlop, she found herself touring the north of England in the freezing midwinter with She Stoops to Conquer. But the first chance to run a company of her own was at Whitby, and her first opportunity to direct the work of writers like Chekov, O'Casey and even Ionesco came during a brief spell at the Century Theatre in Leicester.

Being a woman, however, she found graduating to a theatre of her own far more difficult. It was at the Castle Theatre, Farnham, that she finally made it to the top, and it was there that Clive Perry, who had been one of the first ITV trainees, came into her life - a close association that has continued over the years, most recently at Pitlochry. Even though never a militant feminist, Joan continued to feel a surge of anger at the fact that it was made so hard for a woman to get to the top.

But Perth has always been a woman's theatre, and that was Joan Knight's luck. Its founder along with David Steuart, was Marjorie Dence, and in fact Joan's first connection with Perth and indeed her first chance to direct a play on her own account was long ago at Marjorie Dence's invitation.

The play was Murder at the Vicarage, and in the cast were Edith Macarthur and Russell Hunter. ``So you see,'' Joan was fond of saying, I had an early introduction to the Scottish creme de la creme.'' But her permanent relationship with Perth and its theatre came years later when Iain Cuthbertson left at the end of his single, somewhat controversial season in 1968.

And Joan accepted the directorship somewhat reluctantly, feeling that her roots were really in the south. The rest is history, as they say. Joan stayed faithful to Perth for more than 25 years until her retiral.

Not that she really retired. Joan Knight was far from being merely a big fish in a small pond. Her work as a freelance director made her a notable figure, not just south of the Border, but internationally. In 1985 she was awarded a fellowship by the British American Arts Association to study theatres in the USA, and more recently she visited Pskov to direct Mr Bolfry for the Pushkin Theatre Company, making use of the experience to bring Alexander Gellman's The Bench to Perth as part of the 1994 Russian season.

Her OBE was undoubtedly well deserved for a life-time of generous activity in the work she loved, and more recently she was awarded a Doctorate from Queen Margaret College, but if Joan Knight had lived and worked in England, would she perhaps have been seen to merit a ``Damehood''?