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.”
Today, a West Elm mans prime real estate on PURE’s same block, across the street, spanning 482 and 484 and beaming with mass-produced mid-century furnishings. A few doors up from PURE, the ever-so-bougie Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream perfumes passers-by with treacly whiffs of Salty Caramel and Wildberry Lavender. When I exited PURE after interviewing Graci, we spotted a busy-at-work surveyor decked out in neon orange, having just emerged from the parking lot behind the theater.
A tad further up on King Street and around the corner at 34 Woolfe St. is Woolfe Street Playhouse, where you’ll often find Village Repertory Company, its resident theater company. That block of King Street has similarly witnessed dramatic changes since the company took up occupancy there in 2012. After several years of planning, in 2015 the “dual-branded” Hyatt Place and Hyatt House at the Midtown opened their doors, thus ushering in a whole new demographic to the block with its habituees.
When the Post and Courier announced Village Repertory Company’s move to the Woolfe Street Playhouse in 2012, King Street was positioned as a burgeoning theater district. Susan Lucas of the King Street Marketing Group then commented, “Upper King Street’s always had this kind of vibe, kind of an artsy SoHo vibe, so this kind of stuff happening here is really great.”
It certainly held promise for Village Repertory Company, which vacated its home in the Mt. Pleasant’s Old Village to take up shop in the urban-chic digs of the newly renovated Woolfe Street Playhouse. “When we signed our lease and began the construction campaign, PURE Theatre was just moving into the old ballet theatre on King,” says Keely Enright, artistic director of Village Repertory Company.
“With Redux right behind us on St. Philip Street it looked like we might be able to create some nice synergy between us all,” she says. “With so many of our shared patrons attending theater at both places, we hoped to create a neighborhood feeling.”
Today, that dream has all but diminished. “I am not sure what happened,” says Enright. “Eventually Redux moved, and it looks like PURE will be gone in a few more months.”
Last spring, Redux Contemporary Art Center took leave of its home on 136 Saint Philip St. for 1056 King St. Its former director Stacy Huggins Geist noted then, in this paper, that the move was largely the result of the area’s rising rents. Redux had instead scored a sweeping 15,000-square-foot new space in the Hanger building, thanks in part to the arts-friendly largesse of one of its owners, Ham Morrison.
It remains to be seen whether other arts organizations who are feeling the pressure will also find such support. Enright says Village Repertory Company’s base rent accounts for roughly 50 percent of the company’s total budget. Such financial stakes may be a make-or-break factor for the little cultural district that couldn’t.
In light of all of this, PURE got a real-life dose of deus ex machina — or “God out of the machine” — the theatrical plot device dating back to ancient Greece wherein an unexpected power or event redeems a dire forecast. In this case, the fortuitous lifeline was thrown on PURE’s stage from real estate developer Patterson Smith, the man who brokered the deal between Zion-Olivet church officials, the City of Charleston, and PURE Theatre.
That deal has resulted in a sweeping 10,000-square-foot space for the theater company. What’s more, it hews to a new vision for an arts incubator in Charleston. The vision hinges upon a space that not only offers one of the city’s leading theater companies an inspired and — thanks to the investment of Patterson Smith Company — completely updated and renovated new place to present works intended to serve the Charleston community. It will also accommodate a variety of arts organizations, which can also use the sanctuary or fellowship hall to present works that may not require a full-on theater like Charleston Music Hall.
Why was Smith thus moved to purchase the property from the Zion-Olivet church officials — and then navigate the considerable bureaucracy necessary to devise a city-administered structure for challenged artists? Smith says he was following the civic direction made express by Mayor John Tecklenburg, who had communicated his priority in making a place for the arts in his administration. As Smith’s office is near PURE’s current location, the seasoned real estate professional had observed the vulnerability of the theater company’s hold on its venue, given the rising values on the block.
“I put two and two together,” says Smith, a native Charlestonian, “and knew from the expressed intent of the then-candidate for mayor, John Tecklenburg, that this was something the community needed.” Now-elected Mayor Tecklenburg spoke about making Charleston a “creative community” and Smith recognized that to be creative, the community needed a long-term and affordable venue. He sees Zion-Olivet as a catalyst for artists, and envisions a steady stream of emerging artists making use of the space, similar to incubators like the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a former munitions plant in Alexandria, Va., which he recently toured.
That’s but one of the arts incubators around the country that are informing the ways in which communities can interact with real estate. In Pittsburgh, Pa., the acclaimed Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in a renovated mattress factory, has since 1977 supported artists in residence working on site-specific installations, video, and performance art. On their website, the museum touts an economic study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Economic Development, which assessed that it “makes important contributions to local workforce development, neighborhood redevelopment, cultural tourism, artistic entrepreneurship and economic growth.”
Arts incubators making use of real estate intended for other purposes have proven to have a positive impact on cities — and not only for the artists who the facilities support. In the late 1990s, the city of Pawtucket, R.I., initiated the transformation of its considerable stock of abandoned mills into artist studios into an arts district, utterly changing what was once a gritty mill city into a nationally recognized destination for the arts.
These days, however, the Tetris game that is Charleston’s commercial land grab may be more commensurate with an urban environment like New York City. This May, The New York Times reported that former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has committed $75 million to a new arts center (currently called The Shed) on Manhattan’s Far West Side that is scheduled to be completed in spring 2019, the seeds of which were planted when he was still in office. According to The New York Times, “As mayor, in 2005, Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Doctoroff, then his deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, rezoned the West Side, calling for a cultural component.”
According to Smith, Mayor Tecklenburg, who has frequently emphasized his commitment to the arts, demonstrates that with his support and that of City Council, of the conversion of the church. “I applaud John Tecklenburg for his commitment to the arts and for allowing me to long term lease this restored church building for the City to operate as a community arts center,” says Smith, who had approached the mayor shortly after his election to propose a partnership with the City of Charleston.
Off the peninsula there are other options available for space-seeking theater makers, which are being driven by real estate entrepreneurs. In Avondale at the former Albemarle Elementary School at 720 Magnolia St., John Hagerty by way of his leasing company Avison Young, has developed The Schoolhouse, an auditorium and commercial kitchen to be rented to actors and others.
Still, others holding down the fort at increasingly desirable spots aren’t all convinced a lifeline is on the way. “I’m not sure that real estate developers have much interest in the arts,” says Jay Danner, artistic director of Threshold Repertory Theatre, which is located at 84½ Society St., just east of King Street. To offset their rent, Threshold shares the venue with another theater company, What If? Productions, occasionally co-presenting work with them.
“If they can get a higher rent for the spaces we rent or even tear a building down to build another boutique hotel with retail space, then they will be happy to let our leases lapse or raise the rent so high that we would be forced to move or close.”
Theater director Peter Brook famously said that a stage space has two rules: (1) Anything can happen and (2) Something must happen. The same could be said for a cultural district in the Wild West of Charleston real estate deals. For those like Graci who are preparing for a new chapter in a new space, it may seem like an indication that anything can happen. For her, the city’s commitment to Zion-Olivet “makes the statement that ‘we are making room and we are mindful,'” she says.
Other theater makers grow increasingly fearful of losing their lease. They have yet to cross paths with that rainmaking real estate mogul like Smith or Morrison, who have embraced enlightened development, brokering deals that keep in mind the needs of this community. Until they do, those theater companies would likely concur that to ensure their stage space, something must happen.