Obituary for Donald Sartain

Obituary for Donald Sartain

My uncle Donald Sartain, who died at the age of 92, was the first managing director of Young Vic, a member of a remarkable team that Frank Dunlop assembled when he founded the company in 1970. 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 (née Abbot) and Thomas Sartain. He attended King Edward’s School, Edgbaston, then Birmingham University followed by national service in the RAF. Delighted by the exceptional work he saw at Barry Jackson’s repertory theater in Birmingham, he responded to an advertisement in the Stage newspaper in 1955 for an assistant stage manager at the Tonbridge Weekly Repertory Company.

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

In 1956 he founded the Renaissance Theater Company at the Lyme Regis Marine Theater with actor Bernard Gallagher and director Austin Rosser. Two years later he re-opened the crumbling Her Majesty’s in Barrow, Cumbria, where he explained what would be his career-long creed: “to offer good plays of every kind, early presentation of new controversial plays, first productions, good comedy and that that Best of English Dramatic Heritage”.

He was poached 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 excited 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 like Jeremy Irons and shared a box office, but success gradually allowed the theater to become independent. Donald cleverly managed to make a lot on a little money, securing financial support from two local councils as the building spanned Lambeth and Southwark, and an Arts Council bursary. In Dunlop’s famous expression, the Young Vic was a “pocket-book theater” that offered young people great quality at affordable prices.

Donald stayed at the Young Vic after Dunlop left and stayed through the regimes of Michael Bogdanov and David Thacker. Although he resigned as Administrator in 1990, he continued to oversee the 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 adept financial management as the fledgling organization struggled to establish itself.

Vanessa Redgrave wrote: “Somehow, no matter how inexorable and persistent the problems, Donald became a Prospero; His pockets were empty, but his behavior spread magic.”

Donald is survived by his 50-year-old partner, Philip Rodolphe.

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