TAKING THE CHALLENGING PATH

BY BILL THOMPSON | PHOTOGRAPH BY HOLGER OBENAUS

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Sharon Graci and Rodney Lee Rogers could not have chosen a more appropriate name for their company, PURE Theatre. It’s a name that reflects the best sort of ambition—a striving for pure excellence.

Since 2003, whether acting, writing or directing, they have helped establish a lofty standard for theatrical productions in the Charleston area. Top-lining a group of 13 accomplished professional actors who compose the PURE Core Ensemble, they showcase five edgy plays each year between September and June, as well as an annual Summer Slam production.

Graci, the company’s artistic director, and Rogers, a playwright and screenwriter, have acted in numerous television and film productions in addition to turning in memorable performances on PURE’s stage. Today, it is writing and directing that command the bulk of their energies, with Graci also at the administrative helm and Rogers, now an independent artist, having turned his focus to new projects.

How does a married couple, no matter how loving and compatible, manage to keep their sanity spending so many of their waking hours in each other’s company? It’s funny, we don’t really think about it being challenging, we just really like each other and being around one another. We both genuinely feel that everything is more fun, everything’s just better, when the other person is there, no matter what we’re doing.

With so much competition has the challenge of sustaining a theater company gotten exponentially harder? We’re happy to say that it’s gotten easier over the past 13 seasons as we’ve continued to establish ourselves. Good theater in any community begets good theater, so the more companies there are in Charleston producing high-quality work the better it is for PURE. We believe that consistency in programming and the resulting artistic product are the hallmark of PURE’s success. If we look back over 13 seasons, it is clear who and what PURE is and has always been: a story-driven, ensemble-based, contemporary theater with a commitment to new work.

You’ve rarely chosen the conventional or easy path in your choice of plays, including the ones you’ve written. You’ve challenged your audiences. We’ve rejected programming “the hits,” which has allowed us to remain true to ourselves and our audience while assembling a body of work that is a contemporary theater artist’s dream. Producing new work and world premieres is exciting, challenging and terrifying. We can’t imagine producing another type of theater. We believe that the Core Ensemble and audiences are equally engaged by this type of work.

What’s more exhilarating, having your own original work realized on stage or presenting work by another gifted playwright? Our work for sure. It’s just more satisfying. What has you most enthused about the new season to come? For Season 14 we’re super excited about The Christians [starring Rogers] and are pumped to bring back The Beauty Queen of Leenane, featuring the original cast [Rogers directing].

You are too modest to say so, but many regard yours as the best theater company in the city. Do you relish having to live up to that billing? We love the fact that we’re good at what we do. It only makes us want to do what we do even better. I [Graci] am hyper-focused artistically, and I set really high standards as an artistic director for our work. As good as I ever think that something is, I can always see ways it could be better. I’m never fully satisfied.

You work with such a fine core group of performers. Do you think of yourselves as a family or more as a cordial group of collaborators? We are absolutely a family, with all of the quirky dynamics that come along with it. We champion each other’s work, we support projects, and we drive each other to bring our best work to bear. As a whole, we complement one another in terms of how we work. There’s a real sense of blue collar industry around what we do, in that we kind of pack our lunchbox and go to work. It’s not really all that glamorous, but it is a whole lot of fun.

At this stage of your careers, has directing become your new love? Directing is my favorite thing in the world to do. It’s the time in life that I feel the most clear—and the most connected to a universal source of creativity. Acting is such a small part of what we do now. With each passing season, it’s getting more and more difficult to get either of us on stage because we’re just interested in pursuing other aspects of our craft. Directing has taught me to get out of my own way and to trust that the right answer will be there, and that the path forward will be clear. I love the process of directing everything from the overall shape of the piece to each minuscule moment of truth that the audience will connect to and see themselves within.

In the most important or enduring ways, has this career been as rewarding as you’d hoped? Absolutely. We are unbelievably happy. We do what we love for a living. We’ve each made our partner in life our real partner. We have loving, supportive families, and we have five amazing children who we lovingly refer to as “the enchantments.” Plus, we get to live, and make a difference, in a special community. We really couldn’t ask for anything more.

How have we managed to keep you here (now at 477 King St.) all these years? We always wanted to build something sustainable in a place that we love, so we’ve been committed to staying here in Charleston. Ultimately, we’ve always known that this is where we want to be. There is so much work still left for us to do. We’re just getting started.

Bill Thompson is the author of Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat.