Mary E. Vaughan, 74, actress founded children's troupe


Mary E. Vaughan, a well-known actress and storyteller who founded the children's acting troupe Upper Nodd Players in Harford County, died of cancer Friday at her White Hall home. She was 74.

Born and raised in Illinois, the former Mary Elizabeth Rittenhouse earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts and theater from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1954.

She was married that year to Charles H. Vaughan, an electrical engineer, and taught briefly in Illinois before they settled in White Hall in 1956.

Mrs. Vaughan, who was known as Beth, became interested in theater and acting as a girl when she enjoyed dressing up and playing with paper dolls, family members said.

In a varied career that spanned more than 40 years, she performed at Center Stage, directed and appeared in productions at Harford Community College's Edwin Booth Theatre, and was an adjunct professor at Towson University and adviser to the Senior Citizens Acting Troupe in Harford.

She taught the craft of storytelling from workshops she held in her Bradenbaugh Road home on Tuesday evenings and was a founder of the Chesapeake Storyteller's Alliance.

When teaching storytelling, Mrs. Vaughan urged her students to "trust the story" and just go out and "do it."

"Beth had been performing as a storyteller at festivals, schools, libraries, museums, senior citizens centers and even abroad since 1983," said Chris Potts, who studied with Mrs. Vaughan and also had her teach oral narrative in her women's studies classes at Towson University. "She was an incredible and fundamental part of the art and culture of Harford County."

Mrs. Vaughan's use of folklore material came from the Appalachians, Europe and Africa.

"If a story spoke to Beth, she told it," Ms. Potts said.

White-haired and gifted with an expressive face, Mrs. Vaughan created the character of Biddy O'Byrne, who dressed in a shawl and carried a basket while entertaining listeners with medieval Celtic tales in an Irish or Welsh accent.

"Biddy was a charming and witty illiterate character who traveled and told stories in a straightforward manner which she infused with a rich creative drama that mesmerized listeners," Ms. Potts said.

Mrs. Vaughan had a great love of children and an appreciation for their dramatic flexibility, and established Upper Nodd Players about 35 years ago.

"My son who participated in Upper Nodd just loved it. Beth was very magical and it was a structured program. She was able to empower those kids and they valued what she was doing," said Lee Drinkwater, who assisted Mrs. Vaughan with the program for years.

"She was a treasure who could bring out the very best in people, which allowed them to delve deeply into their dramatic creativity," said Gina Pierleone, assistant director of Upper Nodd. "She got the kids to take theater seriously and the work seriously. If they got unruly, she could get them back to center effortlessly."

She added: "Beth made Upper Nodd an environment that was fertile so things could happen."

Mrs. Vaughan had recorded three storytelling CDs - Favorite Stories, Biddy O'Byrne from Time Medieval and Hearth Tales & Harp Strings.

Some of her popular storytelling programs - both for adults and children - included Celtic Connection, From a Time Medieval, Remember December, Slavic Stories, Something Shakespeare, World Traveler, Us is Us and Waters of the World.

Mrs. Vaughan was a member of Ayres Chapel United Methodist Church, where services were held yesterday.

In addition to her husband of 52 years, survivors include four sons, Steven C. Vaughan of New York City, Daniel F. Vaughan of White Hall, Michael L. Vaughan of Cumberland and Peter C. Vaughan of Elverson, Pa.; two sisters, Helen Seikman of Frankford, Ill., and Shirley Runde of Columbia; and 13 grandchildren.

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