Donald Sartain’s Obituary

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

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

He then teamed up with another community theater pioneer, Joan Littlewood, at Theater Workshop, which he found quite difficult. It wasn’t a happy time for him, but he later realized what a valuable training it had been.

In 1956, with actor Bernard Gallagher and director Austin Rosser, he formed the Renaissance theater company at the Lyme Regis Marine Theater. Two years later, he reopened the decaying Her Majesty’s in Barrow, Cumbria, where he stated what would be his career-long credo: offering “good plays of every kind, early performance of controversial new plays, first productions, good comedy and the best of the English dramatic heritage”.

He was sought after by the Dundee Rep in 1964. Dundee was already becoming well known, with actors like Michael York and Jill Gascoine in the company and many actors, directors and designers eager to see what was happening. One was Dunlop – and he invited Donald to join him in Young Vic.

The Young Vic opened with Scapino, an adaptation of Molière drawn by Carl Toms. Initially it employed young actors from the National, such as Jeremy Irons, in addition to splitting the box office, but gradually the success allowed the theater to become independent. Donald deftly made a little money count for a lot, securing financial support from two local councils, as the building spanned Lambeth and Southwark, as well as a grant from the Arts Council. In Dunlop’s famous phrase, the Young Vic was “pocket theater”, offering great quality at affordable prices for young people.

Donald remained at Young Vic after Dunlop’s departure and remained through the regimes of Michael Bogdanov and David Thacker. Although he stepped down in 1990 as administrator, he continued to oversee Young Vic’s national and international touring programs and organized 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 deft financial management as the new organization sought to establish itself.

Vanessa Redgrave wrote: “Somehow, however relentless and continual the troubles, Donald became a Prospero; His pockets were empty, but his behavior spread magic.”

Donald leaves his partner of 50 years, Philip Rodolphe.

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