JaMario Stills always seems to be in a thoughtful kind of motion; his love of—and dedication to—theater, palpable. As the artistic director of Phase Eight, a regional repertory theater company that takes as its core mission both cultural and economic enrichment, “… we talk about being an organization that speaks to all voices,” his activity is necessitated by the demands of his craft as well as the reality of working within the artistic community in Northeast Florida.
A graduate of The Juilliard School and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, Stills returned to Duval in 2014 to make a tangible contribution to the well-being of the city he calls home, after years spent professionally acting and directing around the world, “That [experience] allowed me to figure out what my contribution could be when I came home.” Now—in addition to his Phase Eight responsibilities—he’s a drama instructor for Jacksonville University’s theater department.
Though Love’s Labour’s Lost is regarded by some critics as a lesser piece in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Stills strongly disagrees, saying, “This play is an opportunity for me to empower women.” He explained that the people who have always surrounded, loved, supported and nurtured him have been women—and it might also be because in this play, physical prowess is subservient to mental prowess as exemplified by the female characters—so he felt compelled to mount this work.
Stills said he believes this to be one of the Bard’s most successful plays, because of its transmission of various perspectives as well as its comedic flair and the use of language. “It’s not overly textual,” he said, meaning that the language doesn’t create a barrier to understanding—in fact, its usage has been cited by 20th-century scholars as a way to challenge gender norms and skewer class issues. “If we talk about being an organization that speaks on behalf of all voices, I think Shakespeare really did a wonderful job of depicting and communicating beautifully about women; and the text has a contemporaneous scope to it.”
Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s comedies (1598); it follows Ferdinand, King of Navarre and three of his courtiers (Longaville, Dumain and Biron) after they make a pact to eschew worldly delights in the name of education and learning. Specifically, those delights in the form of yielding female flesh. “The mind shall banquet, though the body pine,” courtier Longaville sighs while making his oath.
Of course their noble quest to make Navarre the “wonder of the world […] a little Academe” fails to consider guests. Following the arrival of the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting, love, intrigue and poetry ensue.
When he was deciding how to stage the play, Stills said that he was listening to a lot of music, and so began toying with the idea of conceptualizing the play against a ’70s backdrop. “I was developing a soundscape of what this play could be,” he explained.
So he and musician Cory Driscoll—who plays Armado, a lesser sycophant—sat down to hash out the music, as filtered through rock-’n’-roll. The result is a vibe that’s part poetry and part performative, “JaMario thought it’d be cool to have a musician/mistral dropping in and out of the scenes,” said Driscoll.
Driscoll said that in talking to the director, it became clear that what would work best would be a kind of Leonard Cohenesque/Seu Jorge-ish presentation that one person (Armado/Driscoll) could sustain with technical ability, and narrative cohesion. “It works, because it doesn’t make it too modern,” said Stills, with a laugh. “And plus, it was such a beautiful era.”
When asked how he cast the play, Stills replied, “I’m always looking for good people—and also people who are exceptionally skilled and have a great deal of potential.” He noted that he regularly attends performances across the region and remembers notable performances; he’ll then approach a certain actor when he thinks he has a suitable role. It’s all in service to his goal of creating a sustainable regional theater company.
That phrase, a regional theater company, is important. “Regional theater is a professional acting opportunity. So when we say regional theater, we’re talking about an organization that is recognized by the League of Resident Theaters as an organization that is allowed to pay actors, performers, writers, designers, creators and still do a season of work. It’s a professional theater infrastructure and the beautiful thing about a regional theater is that it allows the national stage/songbook to vouch on ideas and issues that are specific to that theater. “This is about a social impact through producing new [NEFL-based] plays and get them produced on a national level.
Collaboration and the expansion of the point of view of NEFL makers/producers is a key tenant of Phase Eight, and Driscoll said, with a hint of a laugh, that it’s what made working on this production very cool—and at times—very frustrating. “Shakespeare has been a literary form of communication for a long time, but he didn’t write [his plays] to be something you sit and read, he wrote [them] to be an active piece of theater,” said Stills.