The Arts Do Improve Quality of Life - 10 Questions with JaMario Stills, Founder of Phase Eight Theater Company
JaMario Stills believes that the arts and creativity should be woven into the fabric of every day life. Don't believe that this is possible? Stop and think about how fashion designers utilize artistic skillsets to create the clothes you're wearing. Reflect on the music that you listen to as you workout at the gym, make your daily commute, or prepare dinner. Consider the architecture that makes up Jacksonville's cityscape and the murals, mosaics, and sculptures that accentuate our visual landscape. And if you still needed more reaffirming, mull over the book you're reading to wind down after a long day. These are all small examples of how the arts are present in our daily lives. Yet how often do you actually pause to let stew how much the arts add beauty to life and have the potential to liberate the human spirit?
Stills has dedicated himself to assisting others in realizing that the arts matter. A Jacksonville native who graduated from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in 2000, Stills eventually left Jacksonville to attended the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, where he received a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Drama and Theatre Arts. After returning to Jacksonville, he began serving his community by joining the staff at The Performers Academy, a non-profit arts education hub for youth who have an interest in the performing arts, and serving on the Board of Directors for Players by the Sea, a non-profit community theatre located at Jacksonville Beach. In 2014, Stills was appointed by the Mayor of Jacksonville to sit on the Cultural Council's Board of Directors, a position he still holds. He also currently serves on the City's Art in Public Places Committee.
In 2016, Stills identified an opportunity to expand his impact on the community, which led to the formation of Phase Eight Theater Company. As a company, Phase Eight is devoted to fostering great actors through contemporary performances that are to be shared with modern audiences. It is their aspiration to be Florida's premier theater institution by developing new voices for the American stage.
Only into their second season as a theater company, Phase Eight has quickly worked to identify collaborative partners in the arts and cultural sector. Included in these dynamic partnerships is the New Play Series, a collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Through this partnership, Phase Eight and MOCA are working together to combine theater and visual art to engage their audiences in a unique and provocative way. The next installment of the New Play Series, which is "Women's Work" by Kelby Siddons, will be presented on July 12th, 19th, and 26th. The production is sold out for the 12th, but tickets are still available for the other two dates.
On July 29th, Phase Eight will collaborate with Zenslayfu to present the 2nd annual "Black Opal," featuring emerging artists of color. The artists will create works that reflect how Africa's vibrant style, fashion, and cultures influence America. This art experience will feature visual art, poetry, music, and fashion. By purchasing tickets to this exhibition, individuals will also receive tickets to see "Ruined," a production presented by Phase Eight in August.
in 2018, Stills co-founded the Essential Culture Podcast Network. Through this digital platform, diverse points of view and experiences are shared related to the arts, culture, education, and commerce. Currently, the network consists of five different programs, all available for free streaming online.
10 Questions with JaMario Stills
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
I’ve learned a lot about myself in pursuit of my cultural endeavors. The most common theme in all my lessons is believing in the contributions that I’m sharing with my community. I feel we are all born with certain gifts and capabilities. I try to honor that by delivering programs, ideas, and performances that highlight those gifts within all of us.
How do you define success in what you do?
I define success as the progressive realization of a worthy goal. With that being said, I feel I’m on the right track.
What patterns, routines, or habits do you think advance the likelihood that any given project will be successful and how do you integrate those behaviors into your workflow?
Great question. I’ve discovered that passion dictates patterns and routines. In evaluating when I’ve been successful, it’s often do to the belief I have in a project. My convictions move me into managing my schedule and a strategic plan. To anyone who is looking to develop a better routine, I’d suggest becoming more emotionally involved in your vision and less intellectual about your plan. Subsequently, better strategy and habits will form.
Phase Eight's website has a declaration statement, "Pushing the Boundaries of Performance." What are the boundaries you see currently enclosing performance art in Jacksonville and what strategies do you have in place to push those boundaries?
I feel all of the performing arts in Jacksonville are created with great intentions. We have a history of developing and nurturing phenomenal talent. So the artists and support systems are here. I personally think the next step is to produce new and important art that transcends outside of our community.
Phase Eight’s contribution is to work with local playwrights, designers, and actors to share stories rooted in our region. The goal is to have that work received regionally and then eventually on the Broadway stage. The way we will get there is to develop our organization on the Regional Theater model.
As a Regional Theater, we will be recognized by national institutions that allow us to practice under the guidelines of LORT (League Of Resident Theatres). The way that Jacksonville talks about race, class, politics, and religion are regionally specific when compared to other parts of the nation. Our theater company will help to tell that story to a national audience.
In 2018, Phase Eight has entered into a number of collaborative projects. How have these collaborations benefited both participating parties and how do you think it's helped Phase Eight be more dynamic as a theater company?
Yes, we have been met with amazing partnerships this year. We have great respect for the aforementioned organizations and we look forward to working together. The partnerships help to aide Phase Eight in its audience development.
The collaborations are a product of the stories we tell. As an arts institution, we lead with the play. That then informs who we feel should be in the audience to create a combustible experience in the theater. We then seek out partners that we can collaborate with to attract supporters whom we think would enjoy the experience of our production. This approach to audience design informs our programming and the type of shows we do.
The cross pollination of our company in partnership with others have benefited both parties very well.
Phase Eight is in its second season as a theater company. What assumptions or expectations have been challenged as you build the company and brand?
We are met with some of the same challenges as others non profit arts organizations. Thankfully, the mentality of our group is one of constant optimism. We find that challenges are ways of course correcting.
Being a theater producer, it’s impossible to know how shows are going to be fully realized or received, so what we get is often a surprise. Our audience engagement and patronage has been great. In a town with such good theater, it's nice to see that our perspective to the art form has been embraced. It’s confirmed that our town really loves the performing arts.
While you were a student at The Juilliard School, you were involved in the founding of Artist Striving to End Poverty (ASETP). How do you feel the arts can transform lives in Greater Jacksonville and what are some opportunities you see for intersecting the arts with issues related to socioeconomics, the environment, justice and equality, and education?
I’m happy you brought up ASTEP. Being part of that organization made me who I am today. Our approach at ASTEP was to lower the barrier of entry to the arts in underrepresented communities. We worked in Homestead, Florida with migrant communities all the way to the townships of South Africa.
Those opportunities revealed that the arts do improve quality of life. I don't just feel that lives are transformed by the arts, I know it. If an institution is not working to improve socioeconomic issues it’s simply because they don’t want to. It’s not a character flaw its just a fact. That decision is often navigated by its leaders.
Until we take part in matters involving the environment, justice, and equality, there’s no perceived need that the arts can help. This year, our theme at Phase Eight is "Our Local Global Community." We’ve discovered that putting a spotlight on plays that emphasize other cultures connects us with our local immigrant and refugee population. This allows us to work with those groups to see our plays and share their own artistic expression within our season. That decision was a need our company felt was a worthy matter.
That’s where it begins.
What is the Essential Culture Podcast and can you give a synopsis of each program currently produced through the network?
ECPN is an art, culture and lifestyle platform. We’ve brought in some of our city’s local influencers who are experts in their chosen field of interest. Our guests are primarily Jacksonville based but we also get people who are known globally.
I’m proud to announce right here or latest partnership with WJCT Public Broadcasting to form ECPN Radio. We are so fortunate to be working with such a respected media company. The mission and vision we have for our city is aligned so this collaboration seemed perfect. ECPN and WJCT focus on cultural broadcasting that reflects the stories and individuals that make our city so special. ECPN Radio will give us the reach we need to achieve the impact we’d like to make. People can tune in to 89.9FM on Saturdays at 11pm.
"What's Your Extra Ordinary?"
Is an inspiring journey into the minds of remarkable people. Toni explore the “EXTRA” gene, or what she likes to call the E-code: Why do some people have both the ability and drive to pursue and/or create what others deem impossible? They never never ever give up. They shatter the status-quo. They don’t let stereotypes or labels define them.
Host/Madeleine Peck Wagner
This show invites our city’s most influential artists to discuss their work and process of creating a final product in dance, acting, film, and visual art.
An audio town hall that represents the voices of African American women and speak to their cultural developments, activism, and artistic ventures.
Shows the audience that our current policies and practices for education are not helping promote quality arts education. Provides insights as to how everyone can help to change that together.
"How to Now"
A show that fuses fashion and design by showcasing some our regions most influential creative entrepreneurs.
What are the greatest challenges you face as an artist and arts professional living and working in Northeast Florida?
I don’t think our challenges are too different from other arts based communities. I feel we could empower the voices of creatives better by providing more resources. Our city has remarkable artists. We could have a significant local and national impact if there were more channels of fiscal support.
I truly feel that’s one of our biggest shortcomings as a community. The city benefits a great deal from public art and the economic impact that our performers bring to local businesses. Yet, we haven’t cracked the code of navigating our city’s fiscal structure and advocating for more support. That has to change now.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector and creative industries?
I think the onus is on us, first, as creatives. I subscribe to the idea that when great art is marketed well it builds our base. This cycle subsequently increases our finances, which leads even better art. I’d like to see more opportunities where those elements are enhanced. Once that level of institutional know-how is harnessed, I have no doubt that the work will have a resounding effect. Information leads to revolutionary acts. Duval is almost there.
We'd like to thank JaMario for his participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for reading.
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