My uncle, Donald Sartain, who died at the age of 92, was the first managing director of the Young Vic, one of an extraordinary team that Frank Dunlop gathered around him when he started the company in 1970. The Young Vic was originally an offshoot of the Laurence Company of Olivier’s National Theater based at the Old Vic.
Donald was born in Birmingham, one of the three children of Nita (born abbot) and Thomas Sartain. He went to 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 Birmingham Repertory Theater, he responded to an ad in the Stage newspaper for an assistant stage manager with the Tonbridge weekly repertoire company in 1955.
He then joined another community theater pioneer, Joan Littlewood, at the Theater Workshop, which he found quite difficult. It wasn’t a happy time for him, but he later realized how 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 dilapidated Her Majesty’s in Barrow, Cumbria, where he declared what his career credo would be: to offer “good plays of all kinds, anticipated presentation of controversial new plays, first productions, good comedy and better than the English dramatic heritage ”.
By 1964 he was kicked out of the heads of the Dundee Rep. Dundee was already becoming famous, with actors such as 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 at the Young Vic.
The Young Vic opened with Scapino, an adaptation of Molière designed by Carl Toms. It initially employed young National actors, such as Jeremy Irons, as well as sharing a box office, but gradually the success allowed the theater to be independent. Donald cleverly made some money to go a long way, securing financial support from two local councils, since the building straddled 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 the Young Vic after Dunlop left and remained during the reigns of Michael Bogdanov and David Thacker. Although he stepped down as director in 1990, he continued to oversee the Young Vic’s national and international tour 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 skilled financial management as the fledgling organization sought to establish itself.
Vanessa Redgrave wrote: “Somehow, however relentless and continuing the problems, Donald has become a Prospero; his pockets were bare but his behavior spread magic.
Donald leaves his 50-year-old partner, Philip Rodolphe.