PURE Theatre is ready to rumble. They've got an official wrestling ring set up in their King Street theater, and ensemble members have been training with professional wrestlers for their season 10 premiere, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. The contemporary theater is stronger than ever as they hit the 10-year milestone, but they almost didn't make it to this point.
Just a few years ago, PURE was rehearsing shows in living rooms, unsure of where their next performances would be held. The nearly four-year period of transience was incredibly hard on the company. "Talk about low points, that was it. That was horrible," says PURE co-founder and artistic director Sharon Graci. "Had [the space on King Street] not become available when it did, we wouldn't have made it another year. There was no way. It wasn't tenable. We just couldn't sustain it anymore. It was too much to move and there was nowhere to go."
Then Charleston Ballet Theatre vacated their black box theater on King last August, and PURE promptly moved in to the prime location. In the last year, they've exceeded revenue goals and expanded their audience base, and they have plans to refocus their energies on producing original works again, too. There's even talk of participation in Edinburgh Fringe in 2014. Things are better than ever, but Graci says she has no regrets about any phase of their development — she's proud of every season they've produced, and the fans they've built along the way.
"One of the great things about PURE's audience is that they take this journey with us," Graci says. "They give us permission to be the company that we are. They agree that we'll do our end of the bargain of risking tremendously with the potential that we might fail grandly. ... Our audience is absolutely broadening and growing, and I'm extremely encouraged by that."
Graci's process for choosing plays is total immersion. As we speak, she has two David Mamet plays sitting in front of her that she plans to read. She's in a constant dialogue with fellow artistic directors and new playwrights, and she keeps a close eye on new works and productions at contemporary companies across the country. "A season to me is like a mosaic, and I think it's one of my biggest strengths as an artistic director," Graci says. "I really relish the process of pulling together a season of theater."
While season 10 doesn't have a specific theme, all six of its plays are regional premieres and all are award-winners. "When I pulled the shows together, I wanted it to be hardcore PURE," she says. "Really flexing those muscles, using different muscle groups for each one of our productions and showing the breadth of this ensemble-based company." The nine-member core ensemble includes a few fresh faces along with PURE veterans like Randy Neale, R.W. Smith, and David Mandel.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, written by Krisoffer Diaz, stars City Paper contributor and PURE ensemble member Michael Smallwood along with Eric Doucette, Christian Duboise, Charlie Thiel, and Josh Wilhoit. "It's about our attraction and security around buying into a single story, only knowing a single story," Graci says. "About people, about cultures. And a phenomenal microcosm of that practice is the world of professional wrestling that really plays upon stereotypes and panders to a lesser informed nature. As human beings we are all guilty of that in some form or fashion."
She adds, "I don't think there are many men who will walk in and won't have at least some desire to get inside that wrestling ring."
While things are looking up at PURE, they haven't put down their boxing gloves just yet; there's still the ever-present struggle to find funding. "It's not the most fertile ground to run a not-for-profit arts organization for multiple reasons," Graci says, citing a lack of diversity in funding. "We know that it can come from multiple sources: local municipalities, individual support, community foundation support, outside foundation support, federal support. There's all kinds of different avenues for that money to be generated.
"Charleston has a history of creative giving and support, and I remain hopeful that Charleston will embrace its full capacity and we can begin to have difficult dialogues around funding opportunities and subsequently the lack thereof."
It's an issue that all arts organizations in Charleston deal with, but Graci feels good about the growing strength of the theater community in Charleston, particularly in PURE's neighborhood. "Rising tides float all boats," she says. "It's all feeding into the experience of Charleston, of Upper King."