Talking Theatre with Sharon Graci

Saturday, January 20, 2018

photo by Keely Laughlin

SHARON GRACI is the co-founder and artistic director of PURE Theatre ( which is recognized for its high-caliber ensemble and compelling productions of contemporary plays. Founded in 2003, PURE resides in the black box theatre at 477 King Street. I talked recently with Sharon about her perspective on theatre, acting, and directing.

As an actor, you’ve shown a unique ability to slip out of yourself and step into a character physically and psychologically—to fully embody the character. What happens to you when you do that? What is that experience?

A lot of it is training. An actor builds the mind of a character and allows that mind to manifest on stage, or for the camera, without letting the actor’s preconceived thoughts, notions, and prejudices impede the process. That’s the definition of being an actor.

How exactly do you build the character?

You build the mind of the character in terms of how that character thinks and views the world, and what the character’s affinities are to different people, moments, and events created by the script. What does that character think? Is life hard? Is life a celebration? Is it drudgery or punishment? All of those thoughts inform the choices I make on stage as events happen to my character.

What do you mean by ‘events’?

All characters have events, such as mother events, father events, money events. Just as you and I have them in life, the character has them on stage, and it’s the actor’s duty to create them as honestly as possible within the direction of the script and as part of the story being told as an ensemble. A lot of this is straight from the Stanislavsky method of acting.

Where were you trained?

I grew up near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My parents put me in acting classes when I was thirteen and I performed in the Harrisburg Area Community Center. I continued to act in high school and in competition drama. Later I studied fine arts at Point Park University in Pittsburgh before finishing school at Augusta State.

What brought you to Charleston?

A lot of it is the choices I have made in life. After college, I was trained in sales by Xerox and spent 6 or 7 years with them as I moved to Columbia and Charlotte and then back to Charleston. I eventually left that job and started the Charleston Children’s Theatre which I ran for about 5 years. But I found I wasn’t as passionate about producing only theatre for young audiences. In 2003 I met my husband Rodney and we decided to found PURE because there wasn’t a theatre like it in Charleston.

Meaning what?

Meaning we produce a specific kind of theatre—a lot of regional premiers and world premiers. Prior to PURE there was no theatre company here producing specifically those kinds of work. It was a niche I thought we could fill. Those are also the kind of stories I am most interested in telling. Contemporary stories.

Where do you see PURE now in its evolution?

I used to believe that I would have arrived once PURE achieved a certain amount of notoriety and enough accolades from people outside this community. I thought outside praise was what I should be chasing; that we needed it to feel validated—to feel that the work we do is worthy and necessary. But I realized at a certain point that that is not what is driving PURE. The grit behind this company is a deep desire to remain relevant and to keep increasing that relevancy to ever greater numbers of members of this community. This is where we live and this is the community we serve. The more our work can reach the hearts and minds of Charlestonians and South Carolinians—that is when our work is most necessary and most profound. When I realized that it was about this community, and not about getting recognition from elsewhere, that’s when I discovered I had something to say as an artist.

Can you talk about the difference between acting and directing? How are they similar? Are the personal rewards different?

There is always an uncertainty as an actor because I can’t see the work. I can only trust what’s given to me as feedback. It’s also a very personal journey as an actor in relationship to other characters on stage. It’s centrifugal in that it starts here and expands out, whereas the director role is more centripetal. It encompasses a view of the whole and then moves toward the center or theme of what a story is about. One looks more at the microcosm of a play. The other looks more at the macrocosm. Actors work more on telling their character’s portion of the story, whereas a director focuses on the arc of a story and how the audience is consuming the play as a story.

What interests you most about theatre these days?

Projects with the greatest risk and the greatest chance of failure. That’s what I’m interested in working on. I say that predominantly as a director because I’m now directing more than acting.

Why not acting as much?

I’ll never say never about more acting, but my interests lie elsewhere. At the same time, being an actor is one of my greatest strengths as a director. I get it. I know exactly what a cast is going through.

What’s your main attraction to the directing side?

I’m interested in crafting moments of truth and honesty on stage. I get totally involved in thinking, “How are we going to make this moment truthful and meaningful and resonant?”

Is that primarily what you explore and develop with a cast?

In the early stages of a production, I don’t have a lot to say as a director. It’s really about the actors trying to find their way and find their moments together without my voice in their head. I think one of the greatest disservices a director can do for an actor is talk too much, and certainly direct too early in the process.

How do you know when you’re getting it right?

At its best, acting should feel like you’re on the razor’s edge of being solidly and completely in each moment in relation to the other characters on stage with you.

What lies on either side of the razor’s edge?

Actor thoughts. “Actor thoughts” mean thinking about what just happened and getting stuck there, or anticipating too far ahead and falling out of the moment of being fully aware of what’s happening on stage with the other actors. Being right on the razor’s edge means having “character thoughts.” Actor thoughts repel an audience. Character thoughts draw an audience in. So you want to create a scenario where you are responding with as many character thoughts as possible. To do that you have to get all the logistics out of the way. You have to know your lines and know your blocking (placement and movement on stage), and you have to trust your fellow actors. If you do all that, then you can be in the moment and listen hard and respond the only way your character should respond. That’s when acting is at its best. That’s when it’s a joyful process of play, no matter how excruciating the character’s circumstances might be. At it’s best, acting has an element of imaginative play that is truthful and honest.

Where’s your role as director in that process?

As a director I try to craft those moments and create scenarios for the actors that will allow those moments to flourish as much as possible so the audience experience is elevated. That is what professional theatre is about. You are not busy watching someone’s performance. You are personally moved by the state of the character.

© City Paper

Why do you think we need drama and theatre?

I think we have a basic inclination to understand our world through stories. The natural condition of human beings is one of connectedness. It’s this false separation between us that is causing all the strife and anxiety and anger and war, and creating so much division and destruction. And it’s completely unnecessary because the truth of the matter is that we are hopelessly connected. There is really no ability to divide us from any living thing, and theatre can help remind us about this. A play can resonate with this truth.

The PURE “manifesto” on your web site mentions the Greeks. Do you see a correlation between the Greek playwrights and what you are doing?

The connection is the human condition in time and place. That is the one unifying trait that has stayed in this art form, and it started with the Greeks. How do we express ourselves? How do we articulate what it means to be alive? These are common traits we still share today.

What about Shakespeare?

I have nothing but respect for Shakespeare—certainly Shakespeare done really, really well. But Shakespeare is not my go-to form of theatre. I think I have a relationship to it like anyone in theatre who is not a classical actor. Just as I don’t gravitate toward doing a musical, I don’t gravitate toward directing a Shakespeare play. There are people who do that better than I do.

What does the name PURE mean for you?

When you boil it down to its essence, theatre is about that human connection I mentioned. We really don’t need anything. There’s no need for sets or props. There’s just the relationships between the playwright’s words, the characters on stage, and the audience consuming them. That to me is the essence of theatre and the relationship we’re fostering here. Everything else is artistic elements we use to tell the story. At its essence, PURE is about boiling down that telling of the story to its purest form. It’s about truthful moments on stage and truthful acting.

When you work with a cast, are you coaching them, inspiring them, pushing them, coddling them—all of the above?

All of the above. We certainly need everyone working at their highest capacity. I am like a professional coach. You don’t see a team go on the field without a coach, and there are things I can see as a director that actors should not be looking for on stage. They have one thing to worry about, which is building the mind of their character and building truthful moments for that character on stage. Everything else is really the director’s responsibility to see and shape and comment on.

Once a play starts its run, do you back off? Is your work done?

If I watch performances, I give notes to the actors before the next performance. Sometimes there are things we’ll work on and change. There may be some moments that are just not working, and it’s a privilege to be able to talk with actors about trying something a different way. We have occasionally made changes even on closing night, and I can find myself years later thinking about certain moments on stage and realizing, “Oh, man, that’s what I needed to do there; that’s what we could have done with that.”

What are actors gaining from their experience on stage compared to what the audience gets from watching a play?

As an audience member, you’re experiencing life through another person’s eyes and hopefully considering circumstances that are different from your own. As an actor, it’s the same thing in that you have the chance to walk a distance in someone else’s shoes and think about life and see the world through a lens that is different from the one which refracts light in your own life. Because of that, I think acting makes you a better citizen of the world, more empathetic, and more humane. At the same time, for both audience and actors, the communion is the thing. The play itself is a vehicle. Everyone takes more or less the same drive, with some in the passenger seat and some driving, but everyone is going to a similar destination and taking the journey together.

What would you tell someone who has dramatic talent but doesn’t want to go on stage?

I would tell them that nothing human is alien. There’s nothing they can think that I haven’t already thought, or that you haven’t already thought, or that some person hasn’t experienced. Everybody has everything within them to different degrees. Everyone has all these purposes that we pursue relentlessly through life because we think they’ll make us happy: the purpose to be famous, to be admired, to be superior, and 99 other purposes in life. Everyone has all of these in them, but when you’re young you think you’re the only one. As you get older, and if you’re fortunate enough to think about it this way, you realize everyone has all these things and that if you drop these purposes you’re going to be a lot healthier and happier, because you don’t need any of them.

Theatre seems to offer a special opportunity to learn about yourself and maybe even break through barriers in yourself, but the fear of being judged is a big obstacle.

Participation in theatre creates milestones in academics and milestones in life. Having the opportunity to participate in theatre is enormous, and unfortunately there’s not enough opportunity for more students and people to participate in it, which is a shame. But in terms of acting there’s really no judgment because everyone has all the same things. That’s why our moniker at PURE is “Everyone is welcome. All is welcome.” There’s nothing anyone can say or feel or experience that someone else hasn’t said or felt or experienced. Other people have walked your same path of joy or misery or destruction.

What is your strongest attribute as a director?

I’m relentless. I’m never satisfied. I’m always kind, but I will never stop. The basic level of acceptability here at PURE is very high and I am working in that 90 to 100 percent range of trying to push each piece of work we do as far up into that 100 percent as we can get it. I work those moments and work them ceaselessly because there’s always something more to find. And when you do find something, there’s still something else to uncover and work on. It’s unending because it’s as varied and complex as human beings are.

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of The Charleston Mercury.

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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
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