"Theater should be amazing," says local stage actor and director Mark Mixson. "I like breathing life into something in a new way, to astonish, surprise, shock the audience." Mixson genuinely cares about theater. He's been involved for more than three decades, both here and in New York. So why isn't his name familiar to everyone in the theatrical community?
The busy trial attorney doesn't volunteer for any old project. He carefully chooses each play he gets involved with, making sure he's perfect for a part or that he can do something unexpected as a director. That means he'll work on two or three plays a year at the most.
When Mixson does get involved in local theater, he's guaranteed to make an impression. You may remember him as the complex, sympathetic villain Salieri in the Footlight Players' Amadeus or as the conniving movie producer Bobby Gould in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow at the Village Playhouse. As a director, he re-energized that old chestnut The Miracle Worker and purposefully unsettled this year's Piccolo audiences with Discretion.
"The playwright [Terry Roueche] wanted people to be disturbed," says Mixson. "Discretion worked for me when I felt it was properly making people uncomfortable. It was supposed to be profoundly disturbing at some level." The story of marital trust and betrayal stood out in a sea of crowd-pleasers during the festival. It was an extreme example of Mixson's desire to "take a play and make the audience see it in a different way."
When he signs on for a show, Mixson blocks out a good deal of time and throws himself into it "with the hope that it'll be great." That greatness can come from unexpected places. The director saw The Miracle Worker as a judicious challenge and opportunity because the audience was complacent about the material.
"It was a large play, somewhat complex in its ideas, but everyone thought they knew it." Although that made it easier for him to exceed expectations, Mixson got incredible performances from his cast and re-established himself as an auteur in a city with limited opportunities for directors.
"Charleston could be the place to do the things I want to do," he says, "but I don't know if it will support epic theater except during Spoleto. I don't know if there's a strong theater community here ... not even a nascent one."
After a successful stint running The Romanceworks company in the '80s, Mixson moved to New York to make his way as a city defense attorney and senior counsel. He was able to fuel his passion for theater, soaking up Broadway shows and establishing an edgy company called Threshold. As his four children grew up, it became more financially shrewd for him to move back to S.C. and set up his own Mixson Law Firm in Hollywood, S.C. and Myrtle Beach. When he's not being "very theatrical" in court, he's having weekly meetings about the creation of a new theater company with significant funding here. All he needs is the right venue to stage his productions.
"I'm lusting after the Memminger Auditorium," he says. "It's dark. No one's using it. I could put six plays on easily that would blow people's minds, using regular people from the Footlights, PURE, and places like that. The shows wouldn't be expensive, but they'd be awe-inspiring. Jaw-dropping."
Wherever Mixson's oeuvre ends up, it deserves to be seen and appreciated. This is a man who gives a damn about local theater, and it shows in everything he does.