Donald Sartain obituary

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

Donald was born in Birmingham, one of three children of Nita (nee 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 theatre, he answered an ad in the Stage newspaper for an assistant stage manager with Tonbridge weekly repertory company in 1955.

He then joined another pioneer of community theatre, Joan Littlewood, at Theatre Workshop, which he found quite difficult. It was not a happy time for him, but he later realised what a valuable training it had been.

In 1956, with the actor Bernard Gallagher and director Austin Rosser, he formed the Renaissance theatre 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: of offering “good plays of every kind, early presentation of new controversial plays, first productions, good comedy and the best of the English dramatic heritage”.

He was headhunted by the Dundee Rep in 1964. Dundee was already becoming well known, with such actors as Michael York and Jill Gascoine in the company and many actors, directors and designers eager 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 success enabled the theatre to be independent. Donald cleverly made a little money go a long way, securing financial backing 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 “paperback theatre”, offering great quality at affordable prices for young people.

Donald stayed on at the Young Vic after Dunlop left, and remained through Michael Bogdanov’s and David Thacker’s regimes. Although he stepped down in 1990 as administrator, he continued to oversee the Young Vic’s national and international touring programmes, and set up international tours for British companies with Theatre Impresariat International.

In the early 1990s Donald worked with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave’s Moving Theatre company, providing deft financial management as the fledgling organisation sought to establish itself.

Vanessa Redgrave wrote: “Somehow, no matter how implacable and continuous the problems, Donald became a Prospero; his pockets were bare but his demeanour spread magic.”

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