When Mark Sutton grows up – really reaches full maturity and the peak of his artistic power – he’s going to be 2 years old.
And finishing high school. And passing through puberty. And snuggling in his mother’s arms on their first day out in public.
The soft-spoken performer has a job unique to Charlotte: bringing theater to literally every age, from birth up to 18.
He has worked for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte full-time for 13 years, as a teacher and performer for elementary and middle schoolers. He has shepherded its High School Ensemble through the edgy likes of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” and an adaptation of “Animal Farm.”
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Lately, he has turned to toddlers. He and wife Meredith co-founded PlayPlay! Theatre, now in the midst of a run of “Psshh.”
That’s the sound of water flowing, he explains. But metaphorically, it represents his ability to turn on the tap of creativity.
“No matter what age he works with, he produces theater from their perspective, and that’s a unique talent,” says Meredith. “The two extremes in age are really his strengths, the high school kids and the babies. But he can engage with any child.”
Says Mark, “Something about the live experience is so powerful: If you get in someone’s space and make eye contact – even with a 4-month-old – you can see recognition there. Even from the earliest age, they see you and think, ‘That’s me!’ ”
He can’t remember the very first time he looked onstage and said that himself.
Maybe it was the black-light show where Czech performers did a nearly wordless piece about oppression: “The language was gibberish, but it enthralled me to watch a piece with no (clear) text. It was so much more theatrical and funny and moving.”
By then he’d already discovered that visual artists could tell stories with little or no dialogue at all – he was especially fond of Charles Schulz and the illustrations of Norman Rockwell – and had created puppet shows in his basement with his sister.
By middle school, he was being paid to do puppet shows at birthday parties in an ice cream parlor near his home, outside Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He missed his high school graduation to make a rehearsal of Neil Simon’s drama “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” his first job in professional theater.
He seemed destined for a show business career. But what kind should it be?
An early decision to make
Young Mark had commuted in high school to afternoon sessions at Dillard High School, a performing arts magnet, after convincing his parents his academic status wouldn’t suffer. (It didn’t.) Dillard artistic director Jon Gillespie had “a tremendous influence on me. I was already eschewing the idea of Broadway and movies. He said, ‘Those are markets, and you can sell yourself there, or you can think of yourself as an artist.’ It’s hard to be both.”
The word on Sutton from himself, his wife or others who know him is that he’s a serious person with a playful side. The little Mark who walked around the house doing funny voices as the youngest of three kids – “I’ve always been a gifted mimic” – grew into an adult who never lost his sense of play.
“Imagination is innate,” he says. “Some children are better at expressing it, but we all have it. Young actors are taught technique too early, (rather than) how to engage with other actors and the imaginary world.
“Many kids who come into the high school ensemble want to do what’s ‘right,’ what’s ‘good.’ They have been taught to please a director or an audience, rather than learning the thrill of losing themselves.”
Sutton is the magnetic clown
To understand his ideas about working with kids, consider the idea about European clowning Mark took to heart years ago:
“The electric clown is the one you can’t take your eyes off, because everything is so big and loud and explosive. The magnetic clown draws you in. He makes the simplest things fascinating, because they (occupy) his whole world. You can’t look away, because he wants to achieve something that’s absolutely crucial to him.”
That’s the theory he applied when he and Meredith decided a few years ago to start shaping little minds shortly after birth. So they perform PlayPlay! shows in intimate settings to an audience of 50 or so, with parents sitting onstage alongside youngsters who are free to gurgle, grab or (within reason) move around the space.
These productions are nearly wordless, though they often include bits of poetry or music from Mark’s toy guitar. “Psshh” offers a loosely connected story about a caterpillar who becomes a butterfly, a storm with Meredith inside a kid-sized boat, and surprises..
“We want to stop the noise of the world we’re in, to allow silence,” he says. “The show is about the simple elements in it – a big piece of blue fabric for water, a cardboard box for the boat – and not the human beings manipulating these things.”
A well-matched team
The Suttons are apt partners not only in life (they have been together for five years and married for three) but in art.
Mark, the producing director, handles physical elements of a show from design to execution. Meredith, the managing director, takes care of paperwork and marketing.
“Mark is detail-oriented,” she says. “He’s so thoughtful about what audiences want to see and any little thing that could take away from the production. I’m a broad-idea person, so we balance each other out.”
She’s the extrovert, though she jokingly says, “I keep telling him this will be my last production.” He’s the introvert who says, “I’m not craving attention. The character gets the attention. That’s why, as a kid, I liked puppets. I could simultaneously hide and put something forward at the same time.”
Introversion doesn’t prevent Mark from being outspoken about things that distress him, especially children’s plays that “satisfy adults with wink-and-nudge humor. Scripts have become cynical; they’re aimed at the person buying the ticket, and there’s not enough truth in them. I could see myself adapting shows that (speak) to children.”
Sutton is kept hopping at Children’s Theatre. He stars in shows (notably Long John Silver in “Treasure Island” and Scrooge in the musical of that name), directs others – he’ll have one week to put “The Fisherman and His Wife” on its feet in October – and has run its substance abuse prevention program for 11 years, as well as leading the high school ensemble.
That doesn’t leave time for adult-focused plays, like the ones he used to act in for the now-defunct Charlotte Repertory Theatre. But though he misses those opportunities, he knows he’s lucky to have a full-time job as a professional actor. He keeps using his life to inform his art – and vice versa.
“I do use theatrical techniques in parenting,” he says. “I train facilitators who lead (theatrical) workshops for high schools. They often deal with kids who don’t want to be there and will ignore or interrupt them. I train them not to beg for quiet or say ‘Oh, c’mon now’ but to focus attention with a word or sharp gesture. Of course, I’m not always that level-headed with my own kids.”
Says Meredith, “Part of what makes Mark a great actor is his empathy. He thinks about what he’s doing and the ways it affects other people in everyday life.”
That’s what he wants to teach each young actor – or audience member – he meets.
“To imagine, to pretend, is central to humanity,” he says. “To have compassion for someone else, you have to forget your own hang-ups and become the other person. I’m not just talking about theater. That’s what it means to be human.”