PURE LIFE THEATRE HOLIDAY GALA
Saturday, Dec. 7, 7 p.m., $45–$50
Pure Life Theatre, Raleigh
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Raleigh’s Sonorous Road Theatre didn’t look like a playhouse in the throes of a major transition. A gaggle of excited kids in Victorian costumes buzzed about the lobby, awaiting a rehearsal of Mary Poppins Jr. in the historic Royal Bakery building on Hillsborough Street. At the same time, just down the hall, “Sips and Scripts” producer Yvette Holder and playwright and fiddler Mac McCord were poring over musical cues for a reading of his Irish drama, Light at the Edge.
But Mary Poppins Jr., which closed last weekend, will be the final Sonorous Road production for the immediate future. Meanwhile, Holder’s company is one of the regional groups whose works will be hosted in this space by Pure Life Theatre, a new collective of stage artists that is taking over the theater and renaming it, then starting to produce there in December before assuming the lease in January.
More than just a promising season of musical theater, it’s a new vision of sharing and coordinating that the region’s independent theater community sorely needs.
The first production under new management came on Sunday, December 1, in Honest Pint Theatre Company’s one-night stand of In the Boots of St. Nick, local actor David Bartlett’s reflective and funny solo show about his experiences playing Santa Claus. After that, a holiday gala and fundraiser on December 7 will include a preview of Pure Life’s inaugural production, A Motown Christmas, which opens December 20.
“What if every week of your life was tech week? You can only do that for so long.”
Sonorous Road’s artistic director, Michelle Murray Wells, seems tired but happy as she considers the impact her company has made during its four-year run. In its first year, the upstart company produced notable works for underserved audiences, including Duncan Macmillan’s drama for millennials, Lungs. Just as important, its original venue on Oberlin Road quickly became an important host for itinerant independent theaters—and the nascent Women’s Theatre Festival—as Durham’s Common Ground Theatre faded before closing in 2016. That year, three of the INDY’s top ten theater productions were produced by or staged at Sonorous Road.
But financial and logistical difficulties beset the company after it had to find a new space when N.C. State bought its Oberlin Road building in June 2017. Upfitting the former Royal Bakery building into a theater took more than $70,000, which could have gone to staff positions and managerial support. The understaffing led to what Murray Wells calls a vicious cycle of exhaustion and burnout. She likens the experience to the final-week marathon of around-the-clock preparations before a show premieres.
“What if every week of your life was tech week? You can only do that for so long,” she says. Then there were the financial hits that she and her husband, Josh, Sonorous Road’s managing director, were taking. They say they pumped $100,000 of their own money into the theater.
“We had to supplement the theater the entire time. We couldn’t continue to do that to our family,” Murray Wells says. Her new job this fall, heading the theater program at Saint Mary’s School, meant that something had to give.
“If we can collectively work together—cross-producing, cross-promoting, cross-marketing, and sharing resources—there are so many beautiful things I can see happening.”
Around the same time, local theater veteran Deb Royals-Mizerk was experiencing the same difficulties that most itinerant theater artists do. After leaving The Justice Theater Project in 2017, she struggled to find appropriate and affordable space for rehearsals and performances for emerging playwright Moses T. Alexander Greene’s group, Li V Mahob Productions.
Having caught wind of the feelers Murray Wells had been putting out about turning over the theater to someone else, Royals-Mizerk pursued it as a venue for Li V Mahob Productions and other independent groups. When the company decided to take the rest of 2019 off to regroup instead of produce, she forged ahead anyway.
Ronzel Bell, Royals-Mizerk’s music director for Porgy and Bess at Justice Theater Project and A Motown Christmas at Li V Mahob, was also instrumental in Pure Life’s genesis.
“He had wanted to do the musical Purlie forever, and I wanted to do Loving,” Royals-Mizerk says. Both shows are now scheduled for Pure Life’s first season. “We’d been working with each other for a very long time, and we wanted to keep working, in an environment where people love and respect each other.”
They assembled a list of seasoned theater professionals, roughly half from previous Li V Mahob shows, to lead the new group. They also reached out to stakeholders across the regional theater community to build a collective where artists could meet, pool their resources, and learn from one another.
“We get so siloed in this community; we just keep our head down and do the work,” Royals-Mizerk says. “But if we can collectively work together—cross-producing, cross-promoting, cross-marketing, and sharing resources—there are so many beautiful things I can see happening.”
It’s increasingly clear that small theater companies individually renting rehearsal and performance spaces doesn’t work. The expense of needlessly duplicating creative infrastructure was already a major problem when we diagnosed it in 2015. Now, it poses an existential threat.
“We have to evolve,” says Johannah Maynard Edwards, executive director of the Women’s Theatre Festival. “And the fact that so many are willing to say we need to shake things up and take another look at how we do things makes me feel really optimistic about the spirit of generosity in our theater community right now.”
A constellation of regional artists are signing on to the vision. In addition to Pure Life’s first season, Honest Pint, Seed Art Share, and the Women’s Theatre Festival will produce in the space in the coming year. So will Jeghetto, JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, and others. And Raleigh Little Theatre and North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre are making resources available to the new collective.
It’s an audacious initiative designed to outstrip previous theatrical-incubator efforts, and it might just save the show.
Correction: Li V Mahob Productions took the rest of 2019 off to regroup, not 2020.