Donald Sartain obituary

My uncle, Donald Sartain, who has died aged 92, was the first managing director of the Young Vic, one of a remarkable team that Frank Dunlop assembled around him when he started the company in 1970. The Young Vic was originally an offshoot of Laurence Olivier’s National Theater company based at the Old Vic.

Donald was born in Birmingham, one of three children of Nita (nee Abbot) and Thomas Sartain. He attended King Edward’s School in Edgbaston, then Birmingham University, followed by national service in the RAF. Excited by the exceptional work he saw at Barry Jackson’s Repertory Theater in Birmingham, he answered an advertisement in the Stage newspaper for an assistant stage manager with Tonbridge’s weekly repertory company in 1955.

He then joined another community theater pioneer, Joan Littlewood, at the Theater Workshop, which he found quite difficult. It was not a happy time for him, but he later realized how valuable training it had been.

In 1956, with the actor Bernard Gallagher and the director Austin Rosser, he formed the Renaissance Theater Company at the Lyme Regis Marine Theatre. Two years later he reopened the crumbling Her Majesty’s in Barrow, Cumbria, where he declared what would be his career-long credo: to offer “good plays of all kinds, early presentation of new controversial plays, first productions, good comedy and the best of the English dramatic legacy”.

He was headhunted by Dundee Rep in 1964. Dundee was already becoming famous, with actors such as Michael York and Jill Gascoine in the company and many actors, directors and designers keen to see what was going on. One was Dunlop – and he invited Donald to join him at the Young Vic.

The Young Vic opened with Scapino, an adaptation of Molière designed by Carl Toms. Initially it employed young actors from the National, such as Jeremy Irons, as well as sharing a box office, but gradually its success enabled the theater to be independent. Donald cleverly made some money to go a long way, securing financial support from two local councils, as the building was on the border of Lambeth and Southwark, as well as a grant from the Arts Council. In Dunlop’s famous phrase, the Young Vic was “paperback theatre”, offering good quality at reasonable prices for young people.

Donald remained at the Young Vic after Dunlop left, remaining through the regimes of Michael Bogdanov and David Thacker. Although he retired in 1990 as an administrator, he continued to oversee the Young Vic’s national and international touring programmes, setting up international tours for British companies with Theater Impresariat International.

In the early 1990s, Donald worked with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave’s Moving Theater company, providing skilled financial management as the new organization sought to establish itself.

Vanessa Redgrave wrote: “Somehow, however implacable and continuous the problems, Donald became a Prospero; his pockets were bare, but his demeanor radiated magic.”

Donald is survived by his partner of 50 years, Philip Rodolphe.

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