Peter Vaughan chose wisely. Vaughan, a reporter for the old Minneapolis Star, took on the role of theater critic in 1977, just as the Twin Cities area was blossoming into one of the nation's best for theater. He pursued the role for more than 20 years until retiring in 1997.
Vaughan, who would have been 77 on Friday, died over the weekend at his French home in the Loire Valley. The cause was cancer. Vaughan had moved to France with his wife, Dana Wood, after retiring from the Star Tribune. They lived in a country manse in Saint-Senoch, in central France, where Vaughan was able to indulge his tastes for good wine and food.
Born in London, Vaughan and his mother moved to St. Paul when he was a child. His father, Tom Vaughan, was an amateur theater enthusiast who became a critic himself after he retired from an academic career.
Peter Vaughan graduated from St. Paul Academy and received degrees from Yale and the London School of Economics. He started his career at the Minneapolis Star as a reporter, winning an award in 1974 for working on a team that investigated the value and reliability of auto repairs. It was as a theater critic, though, that he was remembered best.
"Guys like me and Lou [Bellamy] over at Penumbra, owe our careers to him," said Jack Reuler, who founded Mixed Blood Theatre about the time Vaughan started to cover Twin Cities theater. "His own personal worldview fit in with what our mission was."
Bellamy said Vaughan wrote exhaustively about Penumbra long before the rest of the critical community paid attention to the African-American troupe. More important, Bellamy said, Vaughan was not afraid to bring the context of social justice to his coverage of Penumbra.
"He really wanted to learn about what it is that we were doing," Bellamy said. "That didn't translate into sterling reviews, but I always got the feeling that he loved theater and came in wanting his socks to get knocked off."
Reuler said one of Vaughan's strengths was that he "knew what he didn't know" and was not afraid to ask questions.
Writer Bob Lundegaard worked with Vaughan at the newspapers and shared an enthusiasm for the arts and sports. The two played tennis each week for more than 10 years, Lundegaard recalled.
"He was very enthusiastic about theater — he'd review three or four shows a week," Lundegaard said.
Vaughan could also be irascible. Lundegaard remembered that the critic often would look at his reviews after they had been edited and then restore his original word choices.
He also had a dry sense of humor. At a breakfast with Rohan Preston, his successor at the Star Tribune, Vaughan was asked how he kept up with the plethora of theaters producing shows.
"Your job is to kill half of them off," Vaughan said, without missing a beat.
In a valedictory when he left the Star Tribune, Vaughan called theater "a unique forum to probe the political, social and personal forces that shape our lives."
"Probably the most disappointing aspect of Twin Cities theater is how often good, even exceptional work, is ignored by audiences," he wrote. "One might argue that we have too much theater and that the exceptional often gets lost, but I fear that too often, people shun theater for the very reasons I am attracted to it."
Vaughan is survived by his wife, Dana, her daughter, Tiffany, and two sons from his first marriage, Tom and Jeremy. There was no news about a service.