Pure Theatre, the company known for its smart ensemble productions of beautifully written plays, has been around since 2003. And for its first 15 years, it was an itinerant group, relying on interim venue solutions, temporary accommodations and improvised stagecraft.
For its first four years, Pure Theatre called a space at the Cigar Factory home but had to abandon it when renovations started. So Pure found a stage on the old Naval Base in North Charleston, where it mounted its clever shows for a while. Then it used Circular Congregational Church’s Lance Hall. Then it moved into a storefront on East Bay Street.
Finally, it settled into a commercial space at 477 King St. that the company converted into a small performance space. It remained there for six years.
And then it had to move.
But maybe for the last time.
Pure Theatre is setting up shop in an unlikely new space called the Cannon Street Arts Center, once a church. The property was purchased by local developer Patterson Smith for $2 million in late 2015. Today, renovations are nearly complete: The sanctuary has become an auditorium, the former fellowship hall is ready for use as a gallery or work space (or both), an enclosed room at the back of the building will be used by Pure as an office, and a larger adjacent room could be made available to visual artists or perhaps used as a rehearsal space.
The lobby will include some amenities. Bathrooms and dressing rooms are ready to go, and a corner space at the back, with its large sliding garage door, can accommodate the delivery and removal of theater sets and large props.
Outside, workers are landscaping. Parking is available in an adjacent lot in the evenings.
Smith, who has sentimental attachments to the property, wasn’t sure what to do with it at first, but a conversation with neighbors and local playwrights Thomas and Judy Heath convinced him to look into transforming the church into an arts venue, he said.
“The conventional wisdom was that it needed to come down and be replaced with student housing, or a medical office, and offers were made to the church to do that,” Smith said. But no such deal was made. “I hoped not to tear it down; I worked hard to find solution.”
When Thomas Heath went to see the property soon after Smith bought it, he was struck by its potential.
“Patterson, this has got to be community theater,” he told the developer as he surveyed the space. “This is a dressing room, this room is a gallery, this room is the lobby ...”
So Smith went to see Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, and he took Thomas Heath with him to the meeting.
“What I told the mayor was, ‘When you were running, I heard your campaign speech three times, and ... you got a little personal and talked about how your avocation to play piano changed your life, and how you wanted Charleston to be known as a creative community. If you want a creative community, you’ve got to have some place to create. I’ve got the building.”
That was the pitch, and it worked.
Scott Watson, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, said the new theater space is badly needed.
The Gaillard Center has an 1,800-seat performance hall, Memminger Auditorium is a big box with a flexible seating configuration, the Dock Street Theatre accommodates about 450. “But once you get under Footlight Players (theater)” — now called the Queen Street Playhouse — “there’s kind of nothing (to rent or use downtown),” Watson noted, referring to auditoriums with standard seating. “But there’s lots of work that needs to be intimate and small.”
So the Cannon Street Arts Center theater will be a place to present new works and assist local groups in developing quality theater, he said.
“It’s equipped for a high professional standard, which should help some of the less-established artists and practitioners groom their work,” Watson said.
Pure Theatre will take a lead in managing this effort, essentially providing consulting services to assist playwrights and producers.
“It’s a much needed piece of the puzzle, and hopefully successful management of it would recommend additional complexes of this sort,” Watson said, adding that there is a degree of spontaneous experimentation involved. “This doesn’t come out of five years of planning and study; this was an opportunity.”
Smith came to the city with the idea, city officials embraced the idea, city council approved the idea, and, voila, a new Charleston theater was born.
Watson now is thinking about ways to leverage the enterprise. In Philadelphia, for instance, a version of the converted-church model is pursued by the people running Partners for Sacred Spaces, which works with congregations to open their facilities to the larger community, create a vibrant multiuse space and generate new revenues that help churches, especially struggling churches considering extreme measures such as selling their property, to sustain themselves.
Is there an opportunity for this kind of shared use here in Charleston?
“The ... alternate and extended use of churches is something we’re very interested in,” Watson said.
In the meantime, there’s the new arts center.
“The beauty of 134 Cannon St. is that it has that physical envelop where I don’t think you’re going to feel like you’re in a theater retrofitted from a church. It will feel like you’re in a performance space.”
The financial arrangement benefits arts organizations, who pay rent only for the days they use the facility. This makes it possible for Pure Theatre to spend less on rent and more on production, according to Artistic Director Sharon Graci.
She said her team has been involved in the renovation project, helping to determine the building configuration and needs. The work is nearly complete, and the company will present “A Doll’s House, Part 2” by Lucas Hnath in its new home Nov. 2-24.
As long-term tenants who will maintain an office at the Cannon Street Arts Center, the Pure team will do more than mount its productions and operate its educational programming.
“We’re here to anchor the building and cultural offerings, and help (others),” Graci said.
Smith pointed out that the church, built in 1964-65 during the height of the civil rights movement, has both an important public history and a meaningful personal history.
Noted African-American architect William J. Clement designed the church, and African-American contractor Herbert DeCosta built it. The building housed a vibrant black Presbyterian congregation for decades during a period that saw the demographics of the Charleston peninsula change dramatically, first because of white flight, then because of gentrification.
“The city has embraced that history,” Smith said. “I’m very proud to be a part of that.”
In doing a little research before purchasing the property, Smith discovered something extraordinary: This was the exact spot to which, as a baby, Smith was brought by his mother after leaving the hospital in June 1950. The family had a three-story masonry home at 134 Cannon St. where his mother, grandmother and aunt lived while his father, Daulton Smith Jr., was involved in atom bomb testing in the Pacific.
So, for Smith, standing within the Cannon Street Arts Center is a little like coming home.