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PURE Theatre at the Cannon Street Arts Center.

Know a Theatre: PURE Theatre of Charleston, S.C.

A small, sturdy theatre with a focus on new work, PURE’s ace in the hole is its adventurous audience, who’ve followed them to various venues over the years.

In the leafy Cannonborough/Elliotborough neighborhood of downtown Charleston, a former church building now known as the Cannon Street Arts Center is the current home of PURE Theatre, a local company run by a husband-and-wife artistic team with strong roots in the region. The theatre started out some 20 years ago as a scrappy itinerant outfit, then found a home on King Street. When that proved too expensive to maintain about five years ago, they were fortunate to find a place in the city-run Cannon Street space, where they continue to stage a mix of world and regional premieres for loyal local audiences in a space that seats 112 (and still has stained glass windows from its former days). We spoke recently to artistic director Sharon Graci about her theatre and what makes it PURE.

Sharon Graci and Rodney Lee Rogers.

AMERICAN THEATRE: Who founded PURE Theatre, when, and why?

SHARON GRACI: Rodney Lee Rogers and I founded PURE Theatre in 2003, and we both still work for the company. Why? Because there was not a theatre here that was focused on regional and world premiere work. Founding PURE aligned our passion for work that is built on extraordinary acting and pushes the boundaries of psychology and human behavior onstage with our desire to live in Charleston. 

Tell me a little bit more about yourself and your background.

I was one of those fortunate people with access to a local community theatre offering acting classes, and that’s how I got started. I was also one of those fortunate people who, when the family was sitting around the dinner table at night, and my parents asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I declared, “I want to be an actor,” they said, “Yay, great!” They were always supportive. I grew up in Pennsylvania and went to Point Park University in their BFA acting program. I met a man who would become my ex-husband and moved to the South, and I’ve been here ever since. The most interesting thing about me is that Rodney and I have five children—definitively proving that you can, if so desired, have children and work in the arts. Rodney is from North Carolina, and he has a degree in theatre from UNC Charlotte. He’s a strong multi-hyphen and his passion for acting-writing-directing took him to Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York. We met in the early 2000s when he was in Charleston directing a short film. We got together and decided that what we, as artists and the community, needed was PURE Theatre.

What sets PURE Theatre apart from others in your region?

Our really curious audience. They are such fervent supporters of PURE and have given us broad license to risk tremendously. Even when they don’t immediately connect with the material, they are right there to tell us, even if there are times when it would be more comfortable not to hear it—but they’re also right back at the next show, bringing friends. So I would say it is just this collective energy and service to the third space of telling and receiving exceptional stories that, in equal measure, ignite thought and prompt conversation. All of PURE’s aggregate parts—the core ensemble, staff, board, and audience—are in service to story and to PURE Theatre, the vehicle of telling these stories. Our audience is top-notch.

Tell me about your favorite theatre institution other than your own, and why you admire it.

I would have to say it was Mike Shepherd’s Kneehigh Theatre. That probably tells you a lot about who I am as a creator and as a director. I also really appreciate Emma Rice’s work, which I was introduced to through Kneehigh, and I’m keeping a close eye on what she’s up to with her new company, the School for Wise Children. And the Rude Mechs in Austin. The common denominator among all of these companies and artists is that they unapologetically create on their own terms, in their own time and space, for the communities in which they serve. That doesn’t mean they’re not ambitious. That would be completely inaccurate. If anyone had said that I live and work and serve in South Carolina because I lack ambition—oh my God, if you can make a theatre company go in a small urban center in the South, one thing you don’t lack is ambition. So I’m always particularly interested in companies and artists that are outside of major markets, creating for themselves and their communities and doing it on their own terms.

How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?

I do what most artistic directors do: I read a lot. I watch what’s happening in our industry. I also work through PURE Lab, which is the division of PURE that develops new work. There’s always something brewing. I’m really interested in stories that have particular significance to Charleston and to South Carolina. I’m very intentional with each piece, challenging how it reflects those we are currently serving and those we are hoping to serve or to serve more. With each act of theatre PURE commits, we make three promises: to only tell stories worth listening to, to endlessly strive for excellence, and to always gift the audience something to talk about when they leave the theatre. If we cannot fulfill those three promises with a particular script, we don’t produce it.

“Failure, a Love Story” at PURE Theatre.

What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season?

The budget is $650,000, and I would say we hire an average of 60 artists a year. 

How has PURE Theatre fared since the end of the COVID lockdown?

Some of the initiatives we committed to during COVID-19 in an effort to keep serving patrons are now integral parts of our organization. We’re thriving, even inside the painful realities of the highs being really high and the lows being really low. We’re doing really well: Memberships and single tickets are all hitting record highs. Our education program that provides school year-long theatre instruction in Title 1 schools is rapidly expanding. And we’re raising more unearned revenue. The company is really in a great place. It’s a point of inflection where we can consider all the lessons we’ve learned along the way and ask: How are we growing due to them? How do we continue this process of becoming and evolving into the company we aspire to be? I’m so excited about this work, and I am as energized today as I was when it was just the magical idea of a company like PURE that was calling to me, vs. my astoundingly chaotic inbox or my infinite to-do list.

How has your theatre responded to calls for racial justice and more equitable working conditions that have arisen with new urgency in the past few years?

I think that any time that eyes are opened—be it one person, an entire industry, a nation, or the world—that’s a moment to express gratitude and to honor the sacrifice and, in many cases, the ongoing tragedy, that was the impetus of the awakening. I believe that when you say, “I must and I will,” you do. So it’s with a great deal of humility, a great deal of intentionality, and a great deal of urgency that we continue working to tell stories that speak to and welcome our total community and to be an organization that, on our stage, in our staff, and on our board, reflects the beautiful mosaic that is South Carolina. Look at any industry that has been held accountable for inequities in its labor practices and working conditions, as the American theatre has experienced: Lasting change happens when workers, management, and boards stop repeating and listening to old narratives and tired prophecies. In the case of theatre, we have a nasty history of synonymously tying the words “nonprofit” and “poverty” in a neurotic knot of deficiency and burnout. We too often expect artists and creatives to wear suffering like a badge of honor for participating. At PURE, we’re just big enough to work ourselves to death. We’ve kept our staff small so that we can live a little more comfortably in an expensive city, and we’re steadily raising all pay and being very conscious of hours worked because we “must” and we “will.” To those of us who are still here, in this industry, fighting the good fight to build something better despite the challenges, the setbacks, and the fear, I say, “Take heart and carry on! We are made for this time. This moment is gifted for us, and it requires all of us.”

David Mandel, Michael Smallwood, and R.W. Smith in “The Lehman Trilogy” at PURE Theatre. (Photo by Chris Warzynski)

What show are you working on now? Anything else in your season you’re especially looking forward to?

Right now, The Lehman Trilogy is up and making audiences very happy! I’m working on remounting our world premiere production of Septima, by Patricia Williams Dockery, which is going out on a short tour of the Lowcountry (S.C.’s coastal counties) in February. The play is based on the life of Septima P. Clark, a Charlestonian Civil Rights powerhouse whom Dr. Martin Luther King called “the Mother of the Movement.” South Carolina is a rural state, and this tour is an opportunity to bring our work to communities that don’t have much and often any access to theatre. 

What’s the strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen or put on your stage?

I think the strangest thing that we’ve ever put on our stage were audience members who couldn’t see the show unless they actually sat on the stage. PURE was itinerant for four seasons, and we produced theatre in some of the most spectacularly unconventional places. In this particular instance, we were in a very tiny storefront sandwiched between a sushi restaurant and a picture-framing shop. Actors had to change in their cars, and the green room was a table at another restaurant in this little strip mall, where the cast huddled around a baby monitor, listening for their cues to enter (Equity would not have approved). Referring back to PURE’s extraordinary audience, they didn’t care where Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts was happening; they were determined to see it, even if that meant sitting way, way DSL, a few feet from their fellow audience members, at a small round table on a bent iron café chair under makeshift stage lights that we questionably wired into the electrical system.

What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?

A lot of things. I read a lot; I garden a lot. I spend much time with my children, even my adult children. I just got a puppy because, you know, one dog wasn’t enough. I also write. I wish I could live to be 1,000 years old; there are so many stories that I would tell.

What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?

I hope it is a place where all are welcome and that we truly mean that we all are welcome. I hope that in 20 years, when we talk about service, and we talk about community, we really mean everyone. One of the greatest questions we get at PURE is when somebody calls and asks, “What should I wear? How should I dress?” They’re asking us, “How should I come to be with you?” They’re doing something that they have never done before, in a place they have never been. It is a tiny act of bravery that deserves our highest respect. Our answer is always: Come as you are. All are welcome. All is welcome.

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