Sir Ian McKellen will star in three plays this autumn and winter at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. As part of the theatre's Autumn/Winter '98 season, McKellen will lead a company of actors in back-to-back runs of Chekhov's The Seagull, Noel Coward's Present Laughter and Shakespeare's The Tempest.

At a press conference held in London today to launch the season, 59-year-old McKellen, who started rehearsals for The Seagull last week, said that the decision to become resident at the West Yorkshire Playhouse for seven months was a return to his roots - playing in a company to local, regional audiences. 'It's the job that I most want to do in the world,' he said, later adding that it would be the most 'thrilling and satisfying personal experience.'

The plays will be performed in the Courtyard Theatre, the Playhouse's smaller venue. McKellen said that he was tired of playing to 1,500-strong audiences (as he did recently during a run of the RNT production of An Enemy of the People in Los Angeles) and was further attracted by the intimacy that the 350-seat Courtyard offered. 'My best work, and the most satisfying, the most demanding, has been done where audiences are as close as they can be,' McKellen explained.

The Seagull, directed by the West Yorkshire Playhouse artistic director Jude Kelly, runs 29 October to 5 December 1998; Present Laughter, directed by Malcolm Sutherland, runs 10 December 1998 to 23 January 1999; and The Tempest, also directed by Kelly, runs 28 January to 27 February 1999.

Commenting at the press conference on McKellen's decision to come to Leeds, Kelly said it was 'an enormous boost to the rhetoric of how important regional theatre is'. She added, 'I'm grateful to Ian for making this leap of faith.'

McKellen will play Dr Dorn in The Seagull, Garry Essendine in Present Laughter and Prospero in The Tempest. He will be joined in the Courtyard Company by Clare Higgins who co-starred with him last year as Wendy in the RNT production of Peter Pan. Higgins' other stage credits include A Letter of Resignation (Comedy Theatre and Tour), Absence of War (RNT) and various productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The rest of the Courtyard Company are Paul Bhattacharjee, Susie Baxter, Claudie Blakley, Daniel Illsley, Peter Laird, Willie Ross, Clare Swinburne, Rhashan Stone and Timothy Walker.