ST. PETERSBURG — Bob Devin Jones likes to say that the philosophy of the Studio@620 is simple. "The answer is always yes,'' says Jones, artistic director of the gallery and performance space that is celebrating its fifth anniversary. "We like saying yes, because we stretch and find out new things and use the space in a completely different way.''
In the beginning, on a hot, sticky afternoon five years ago today, when the Studio@620 had its groundbreaking with a ceremony that included a performance by Dundu Dole Urban African Ballet in the still-to-be-renovated storefront on First Avenue S downtown, it was little more than a vision for a communal gathering place by the two cofounders, Jones and his next-door neighbor in the Old Southeast, Dave Ellis.
"I don't think they really knew what kinds of seeds they were planting,'' said Ann Wykell, former manager of cultural affairs for the city of St. Petersburg. "Five years later, here's this garden that grew out of the community, a very interesting mix of art, culture and social justice issues. They still surprise me after five years.''
Seminal events have included a reading by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko; dinner and discussion with John Hope Franklin, the late historian and author of the classic From Slavery to Freedom; annual productions of Shakespeare, including Romeo and Juliet, which had six sold-out performances in May; an exhibit of paintings by the Florida Highwaymen; and a variety of projects by local young performers, writers and visual artists.
The Studio@620 has a good vibe. At night, as light streams through the large windows onto the street, with art hanging on the walls, people milling about and talking, eating and drinking, it looks like a kind of oasis. The space has been utilized for dance, theater and poetry readings, film, book chats with best-selling authors (thriller writers Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane are supporters) and panels on community issues.
"It's a very personal space,'' said Ellis, 70, a designer who created Great Explorations, the St. Petersburg museum that opened in 1987. "You get so close to the performers that you can see them sweat when they dance.''
Jones, 54, has been a presence on the bay area arts scene since 1997, when he directed a production of Miss Julie at American Stage. He set Strindberg's classic in the Harlem Renaissance, with a black cast, in response to the city's race riots a few months earlier. During rehearsals he met the man who would become his partner, Jim Howell, and soon moved from Los Angeles to St. Petersburg.
"Florida, St. Petersburg, has been fertile ground for me,'' said Jones, who has directed local productions such as Manhattan Casino and Black Nativity. He has written and performed shows on James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston for the Florida Humanities Council.
These days, Jones is running the Studio@620 solo. Last fall, after the studio's thrilling debut of freeFall Theatre in a scintillating production of the Michael John LaChiusa musical The Wild Party, Ellis decided to step down. He now has an emeritus role.
As artistic director, Jones has a salary of $22,000. "Before I came here I was a peripatetic creative person — an actor, a director, a writer,'' he said. "This job at the Studio@620 is the longest I've ever had. ... So I've had a huge learning curve in how to run an organization. But here I am, doing absolutely the thing I love the most.''
His plans for next season include the premiere of a one-woman show on Mahalia Jackson starring Sharon Scott and a production of Macbeth if he can find the right actor.
He'll miss having Ellis with whom to share the work. "There's safety in numbers,'' Jones said. "This couldn't have happened without him.''
And Ellis' advice? "I think if we can keep bringing young people in, that's going to make the difference.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.