The first time I ever saw Mark Vaughan was In a promotional booklet for Wagner College. I was a senior in high school at the time, and I was doing a Production of Man of La Mancha. The photo in the booklet was of the Wagner production of the same musical, and in it, Mark, as Sancho Panza, rode forth alongside Chris Dell'Armo's Don Quixote in search of adventure.
The first thing that caught my eye was Mark and his impish grin. He looked unlike anyone I had ever seen. A little pudgy, a little short (Like I should talk) and just... different.
Like a magic visitor from a faraway land, where the people were able to hold onto the magic of childhood, the magic of being alive.
He was something out of a fairy tale.
I thought, "I have got to meet this guy."
My freshman year at Wagner, I saw him a few times around campus, and I watched him from afar. He was "The guy in the Photo" and I wondered what he would be like in real life. Boy was I in for a treat. He was quick to smile. He had an easy, reassuring grin that came flowing from a deep and honest reservoir of goodwill; he had a gravelly voice that seemed to have two simultaneous tones to it-- That of an older man and a young boy. He had a really great jaded sense of humor that came from what seemed to me to be fifty freaking years in showbiz. He was like a well-travelled old vaudevillian crossed with a young, wide-eyed boy.
He could offer informed opinions about any show or song, actor or actress, obscure movie or play that you had never heard of. He was a trekkie. He seemed to have six VCRs running at all times to tape the various shows he was following. His dorm room was full of Broadway posters.
We did two shows together my freshman year. The Prince & The Pauper, Lewis Hardee's charming musical adaptation of the Mark Twain novel, in which Mark played a court Jester who has to recieve an ass-paddling for every one of my character's transgressions; And Anything Goes, where the two of us played the oh-so-politically correct Chinese missionaries-cum-gambling addicts Ching and Ling, (both were fully fleshed-out characters with definite character arcs). We decided that Ching and Ling had a relationship not unlike Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street-- They were Gay lovers all the way.
Mark's character held the upper hand in the relationship, of course.
I never had so much fun as I did when I was onstage with Mark. He was not shy about chewing the scenery or cutting up backstage. The ladies adored him. He tolerated my stupid jokes and blabbings about sports. I felt a sense of being a younger brother to Mark, and I followed him around like a big, dumb dog, protecting Mark wherever we went. He was so small, so fragile, so vulnerable...I suspect others felt the same protectiveness towards him-- But he really didn't need our protection. He was too busy living.
He was also helping me to grow as a performer, and I never stopped to thank him for it.He would tell me all about theatre, about all the shows he wanted to do, saying things like "Oh, Me and my Girl?? you don't know that show?? That's a GREAT role for you!!" and I would say "Really? You think so??" He built my confidence up without knowing he was doing it... and he worked with me to learn some of the comedic bits in the play. He even sent me a copy of a movie with Robert Lindsay to watch over the summer to learn some of the hat tricks and pratfalls. I watched it religiously, and when Wagner decided to do Me & My Girl, I got cast in the role-- Thanks to Mark.
I played 'Ching' again in Anything Goes at a theatre in upstate NY that summer, but without Mark, it just wasn't the same. I sat around for three weeks watching TV and eating doritos, and I went home when my contract was up. Without Mark, it was just no fun.
He never waited around for the phone to ring. He had his own theatre company back home, and he made his own dreams come true, while giving others an opportunity to do the same. When he and his mom flew me out to Missouri to do Assassins in august of 1993, I saw first-hand the tireless theatre work ethic that propelled this amazing little guy. He had such a passion for theatre, for creating and telling great stories.
If there was a problem, he found a way to solve it-- In the most direct way possible. During the final scene of Assassins, Mark's character, Guiseppe Zangara, translates the ensemble's plea to Oswald into Italian. Unfortunately, the italian translation was not in the script. So Mark tracked down the phone number for Eddie Korbich, the actor who played Zangara in the original Lincoln Center production, and called him at his apartment in Brooklyn. It was worth a shot. Later in the day, Mark recieved an answering machine message-- From Eddie Korbich himself, giving the entire speech in italian. I can still see Mark rewinding, playing, and pausing the answering machine tape, frantically jotting down the speech with a shit-eating grin on his face. Problem solved.
I had a wonderful time in Missouri, and I felt as if I belonged-- To a community, to a theatre company, and to a very, very special family. The Vaughans are a group of hopeful, like-minded individuals who are constantly aware of what it means to be together. They knew that their time together with Mark was a precious gift, and their celebration of that gift extended outward to touch everyone they met. How many kids got a chance to be in their plays over the years? How many overcame stage fright or made new friends? How many discovered they had a talent for performing? How many people laughed or cried watching the stories they told?? How many people, how many lives did Characters & Company touch??
I don't know, but It was an amazing operation to behold, and the warmth, love, and support present in the Vaughan household was everywhere.
Now, I didn't know it at the time, but Mark had health problems which hung over him his entire life, serving as a constant reminder of his own mortality. Some people would allow that fact to freeze them into inaction, but Mark took the initiative to go further, to grow, and to challenge himself.
Over the years, I lost touch with Mark and his family, but I never doubted that he was doing some project or another-- His house was undoubtedly full of props, banners, sheet music, sewing machines, broadway CDs and promotional materials. Those six VCRs were no doubt retired in favor of three TiVo machines that were dutifully humming away. Barbara was probably sewing, Jennifer was probably on the phone to the press, and Mark was probably writing up a cast list while planning to do a full blown, full-cast, full-set version of LES MIZ in an elementary school cafeteria next season... because why not??
In my imagination, the beautiful chaos of the Vaughan household was no doubt intact.
I didn't know that time was running out.
Last summer, Norma Chartoff emailed me to tell me that Mark's health was failing. I was playing Charley in Where's Charley? and I emailed Mark to tell him that no one had come to their senses and kicked me out of showbiz yet. Unfortunately, I sent the email to the wrong address. When it bounced back, I said, "Well, I'll get in touch soon" and went about my own incredibly hectic and project-filled life.
This spring I got the news that there would be no 'soon.'
I should have done something when I had the chance. I should have called. I should have said "I Love You." I should have said "Thank You for being my friend and for being so steadfastly yourself." I should have said "You are a gift to us all."
I should have said "I knew it!!! I know the truth!! Goddammit, You ARE a magical visitor from a faraway land, sent here to make us all better people!!!
"Mark!! I'm on to you!!! I've known it since High School!!!"
I should have just called, and said what is simple and true.
"Mark, I think about you all the time, and I'll never, ever, ever forget you as long as I live."