Could the crush of development mean curtains for the peninsula's theaters?

November 15, 2017

Before you even crack the front door of PURE Theatre, you'll spot artful signs of the sweat equity that the company has put into creating its current home at 477 King St. Outré, framed posters from recent productions punctuate the storefront's glass façade. A smart, arched little bar beckons from inside, with its promise of spirited intermissions meant for mingling, parsing new plays — and getting your head around topics like social justice or artificial intelligence.

Once in the lobby, wend your way around a far wall — which is topped off with a row of contemporary prints on loan from the nearby Halsey Institute of Art — and you'll end up in the theater proper. A spare black box skewed sideways to maximize the square footage in the long, narrow room, it has been tricked out with tiered rows of compact, reasonably comfy red chairs, resulting in a sleek bleacher setup boasting nary a bad seat in the house.

For the past six years of PURE's 15-year run, founder Sharon Graci and company have inhabited this somewhat modest turf in every imaginable way. Season after season, they have pushed stylish sets to their physical limits — and pushed challenging notions about the heart and the mind to their outer limits, too. With every performance, PURE has created worlds far away from the throngs of bar-hoppers parading by, and whooping it up, outside on King Street. On its makeshift stage, the company has together induced many a stricken silence, even amidst the dim disco pulse reverberating from proximate cocktail lounges.

But at the end of this season, Graci is giving this home the hook. Situated on a block that is now hot property for national franchises and swarms of sightseers and scene-makers, the coveted address is far from ideal for a non-profit theater company hoping to stay afloat.

"We always understood it wasn't a long term solution," says Graci from an audience seat she has rearranged for our interview, leaning in with the ease of someone on her living room sofa. When the company signed the lease in 2011, PURE had expected to stay in the venue for all of two or three years, having known that plans were already in the works to build a boutique hotel on the site.

Graci stresses that there are no hard feelings with landlord, Chris Price, president and founding principal of Price Capital Holdings, LLC. Instead, she credits him with letting PURE continue on there, well beyond their initial agreement and at well below the market value.

That equanimity on the part of Graci may be somewhat informed by the fact that the company has found an enviable new home a few blocks away. Thanks to a deal with Patterson Smith Company Inc. and the City of Charleston, PURE will operate as an anchoring tenant and resident theater company in a new facility in the building that was formerly Zion-Olivet Presbyterian Church on 134 Cannon St. There, PURE will mount shows in its sanctuary and also avail of office space throughout the year. While the details are not completely inked, PURE anticipates being up and running in the new theater by its 2018-19 season.

The itinerant artist is an age-old story in the arts world. That phenomenon is currently known as the SoHo Effect, so named for the cluster of artists in the 1970s who transformed Manhattan's rough-and-tumble warehouse district just South of Houston Street into a hotbed of artistic innovation. Think visual artist Gordon Matta-Clark, avant-garde playwright and theater maker Richard Foreman, and performance artist Laurie Anderson.

But once SoHo made its mark as a creative mecca, many of those seminal denizens were subsequently forced out in place of high-end retail and luxe lofts. Today, as then, theater companies frequently land spots in more affordable areas of town, add cachet, galvanize cultural districts, only to then get priced out.

As anyone who has skirted scaffolding or has been jolted by jackhammers around town knows, the city's building business is booming. Warren L. Wise reported on October 9 in the Post and Courier, "In every sector of the Charleston market — office, retail and industrial — vacancy rates come in below 10 percent, and the building boom shows little signs of slowing down in the immediate future." Read more here.