The past struggles, current season and future plans of Pure Theatre

September 6, 2017

Sharon Graci has always had a strong connection to the qualities that make us human. She's carried that over into her role as co-founder and artistic director of Pure Theatre, which is entering into its 15th season this fall. 

"I realize what I do in life is humanize things," says Graci. "I humanize events and conditions that can be applied to another, and I bring them into a realm of possibility that’s very personal and human and relatable. And that is what I am most passionate about and most driven to do as an artist."

In fact, she believes that showcasing plays that delve into those qualities through deep exploration and sometimes uncomfortable introspection is vital to our humanity. 

"The embracing of what makes us humane is ultimately our savior," says Graci. "And I argue, if as a species, we are unable or unwilling to embrace and recognize those conditions, we may not survive. So, that’s what we do. It’s far more than ‘let’s just put on a play.’”

Pure Theatre, started in 2003 by Graci and her husband Rodney Lee Rogers, always has produced contemporary performances that ultimately support this concept. 

And that's even in its itinerant days, traveling from space to space for more than three years and finding refuge in small nooks such as a 1,700-square-foot black box in the Cigar Factory. 

"You could tell a Pure patron because they were tailgating in the parking lot," says Graci, laughing. "There was nothing down there. And you could later tell a Pure patron because they’d be standing around in a random parking lot saying, 'Where are they?' because we moved around so much. All kudos goes to those patrons who were willing to travel and try to stay with us."

The nomad company, which now features a 16-person core ensemble, settled down in 2011, however, when Pure Theatre moved into its current space at 477 King St., which is where it will reside through the 2017-18 season. And this year's lineup is particularly poignant to Graci. 

"Producing seasons is very much like creating a mosaic," she says. "We don’t want every play to be the same in terms of its level of theatricality, how stylized is it, how realistic is. Expanding and exploring the breadth of what theatre can be is also part of what we try to do."

This season's plays include "If I Forget," "The Royale," "Fun Home," "This Random World" and "Straight White Men." 

"I’m most excited about when I look at the season what it represents: a maturity of the organization, the maturity of me as an artistic director, service to this community and an open invitation for everyone," says Graci.

Pure's current lease will run out after the last show of the season. At that point, the theatre will be looking to make a move, and a seemingly perfect location has cropped up on Cannon Street that has drawn Graci's attention. The site of the old Zion-Olivet Presbyterian Church at 134 Cannon St. is currently being developed by the City of Charleston as a multipurpose cultural center, and Pure is at the top of the list of potential future residents.

In fact, Graci has been looking at the space since April 2016, and the City of Charleston's lease for it was officially approved in January 2017. 

"We can see a variety of things going on there, including a large tenant like Pure Theatre but also smaller tenants, like local dance groups or arts tenants," says adviser to Mayor John Tecklenburg, Rick Jerue.

The City of Charleston will enter a leasing negotiation with the space's future tenant, hoping to allow artists to stay downtown amid skyrocketing rent prices. 

"Downtown is becoming very, very expensive," says Jerue. "We want to make sure we can provide a rental opportunity for small arts groups."

The current Upper King Pure Theatre space features 99 seats and sells an average of just over 70 percent capacity per season. The space on Cannon Street has the potential for 200 to 300 seats, according to Jerue, with a flexible layout that could accommodate a variety of other artistic pursuits and needs as well as stage performances. 

Graci is hopeful that this new beacon among the Cannon Street corridor will be Pure's future home. 

"First of all, I love the fact that it was a place where, to me, in its previous incarnation, it embodied our motto," says Graci. "A place of openness, a place of community, a place of understanding and a place of seeking. And I think there are so many parallels between that and what we do in the arts and theatre."

The future is definitely hopeful, for Pure and the other potential uses of 134 Cannon St.

"I think the Arts Center on Cannon Street is an excellent example of an additive solution, of the private sector and the public sector working together to create a solution that meets the needs of an increasing number of artists and by extension, arts patrons," says Graci. "I’m encouraged. I’m thrilled that the city was willing to pursue this, and I’m really hopeful."