Rodney Lee Rogers (left) and Sharon Graci, co-founders of PURE Theatre, celebrate the company's 20th anniversary this year | Photo by Ruta Smith

Over the last two decades, PURE Theatre has established itself as a go-to for contemporary theater productions and a gathering place for the community. PURE Theatre presents drama as a powerful catalyst for inclusion, awareness, acceptance, action and change. 

This year, the theater company celebrates its 20th season. 

“Season 20 is more of the best parts of PURE. We are producing three regional premiere plays and two world premieres. We are employing more than 50 actors, directors, playwrights and designers,” according to PURE Theatre co-founders Sharon Graci and Rodney Lee Rogers.

The company reached this milestone, at least in part, due to the support of their artistic community.

“It’s always necessary to consider where you’ve been and how that unique combination of experiences shapes direction,” Graci said. “We have always been ambitious, and I think one of the components of our success has been our acknowledgement of not only our own past triumphs and missteps included, but every company that’s come before us.

“PURE did not sustain two decades of success in a vacuum,” she said. “We have deep respect for our fellow companies and artists that have built a thriving arts scene in Charleston, that has produced such fertile ground for PURE.” 

Formerly at 477 King St., PURE Theatre has called the Cannon Street Arts Center home since 2018, with plans to stay for the long haul. The company has moved many times in the past while pursuing their mission of producing excellent theater in Charleston.

For its first four years, PURE Theatre started out at the Cigar Factory, followed by a stage on the old Naval Base in North Charleston. It had a stint at Circular Congregational Church’s Lance Hall; next, a storefront on East Bay Street. Finally, PURE Theatre settled into a commercial space at 477 King St. that the company converted into a small performance space and remained in for six years. 

“Over the years we’ve made as much room as possible to serve our audience and artists. We have a very one-world perspective summed up in the moniker: ‘All are welcome, all is welcome.’ We have built a company that walks the walk of diversity, equity and inclusion, and we’ll continue to intentionally pursue those ideals,” Graci said.

Graci and Rogers are working diligently, along with arts consultant Morenga Hunt, to ensure “measured, sustainable growth for years to come,” Graci said. 

“PURE is responsible for more than 80 Southeast regional premiere productions, and we have produced 30 world premiere plays. … PURE is the artistic home to some of the finest professional theater artists based in the Southeast, and we welcome artists from across the country to join us on our stages as actors, directors and designers.”

PURE Theatre is also making great strides with its Education and New Media programs, said PURE co-founder Rodney Lee Rogers. 

“With the array of new media now available to us, we want to explore how new content and streaming capabilities can enhance and evolve our mission statement. This community’s hunger to explore and participate in making theater is a by-product of our live performances.”

PURE Theatre is certainly holding true to their mission of community engagement by broadcasting live performances for audiences who cannot attend in person, and expanding a leading-edge educational program, which serves students in Title I middle schools. The program employs both in-school educators and teaching artists, providing 32 weeks of in-depth theater experiences for hundreds of students each year.

“Our camps and school programs are developing faster than we can keep up, and our streaming shows are finding audiences throughout the country and worldwide … We want to continue to develop opportunities for theater lovers to really get their hands dirty when it comes to this art form. Be it acting classes, writing workshops, design seminars — theater is better when we’re all participating,” said Rogers. 

What’s the best way to support PURE? 

“See our work, and participate in our programming,” said Graci. “Theater is rooted in the communion of audiences and artists, and one doesn’t easily exist without the other. Whether it’s live performances or live-streamed performances, in-person classes or virtual seminars, PURE is worth the investment.” 

10 years of intrigue

Darryl (left) and Sherry Wade started Black Fedora Comedy Theatre 10 years ago after moving to Charleston | Photo by Rūta Smith

In 2012, Darryl and Sherry Wade relocated from Atlanta where they spent two decades producing live entertainment for corporate audiences. The couple opened Black Fedora Comedy Theatre at 164 Church St. after their move, and have spent the decade since producing audience-centered, comedy/mystery performances. 

The Wades describe what they do as “working with a group of talented, friendly, funny people, with a mission to serve their guests in a spirit of humor, playfulness and joy.”

The audience-interactive shows held at Black Fedora run most evenings. As an audience member, you can volunteer to play a character, or choose to stay out of the spotlight and enjoy appetizers, desserts and drinks.

Darryl explained that the joy of his patrons is what drives his work at Black Fedora. 

“At the end of each performance, we invite that evening’s 20 or so volunteer audience actors to the stage for a group photo with our cast, which we’ll later post on social media,” he said. “Their families and friends, phone cameras up, will circle the stage like paparazzi, and as we yell, ‘Look right … Okay, now look left!’ We’ll tease the volunteers with something like, ‘Get used to it, people, this is your life now!’ In that moment, looking at the happy faces of proud participants and their entourage ­— ­­life is beautiful to me.”

Sherry explained that the couple started the theater because they thought it would be fun way to earn a living in their new city.

“As we’ve moved past the stress and excitement of opening, growing and learning … what has moved to the forefront is providing a positive and even meaningful experience for our guests and staff. We are thankful to have a place where it feels as if we are doing some good in the world,” she said.

“It is unique — we pretty much made up a certain style of clean, comic, relaxed, audience-centered theater,” Darryl said. “We didn’t plan to — we fell into it as an Atlanta travel troupe and honed it these last ten years at the Black Fedora. And until you experience us, you’re not going to quite get it. And that’s okay.

Today, the audiences who find us are the ones who will be the most likely to get us.”

Darryl and Sherry said season 10 at Black Fedora is all about celebrating how far they have come. 

In terms of future plans, Sherry hopes the current cast will stay with Black Fedora for a long time. The plan is to “keep making guests happy and enjoy this special thing we get to do,” they said.

Darryl is proud of how far the theater has come in the past decade: “One of the first reviews we received back in the day said, ‘A work in progress.’ And they were right — we were finding our way, discovering what worked and didn’t, what we did best and so therefore where we should put our focus … While we’ll always be adapting and continue to make our fair share of mistakes or missteps, the work has been pretty much accomplished. We have arrived. We know what we’re doing now and we’re very good at it. So the next 10 years? It’s time to have fun!”

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