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Curtain call: The Studio @620’s Bob Devin Jones

Bill DeYoung



Bob Devin Jones is directing "Hamlet" as his swan song from the leadership position at The Studio@620. "Whatever contribution I’ve made, with an army of support and approbation, it’s been a good tenure," he says. Photos by Bill DeYoung.

Sitting by the big streetside windows inside The Studio@620, Bob Devin Jones is reflecting on two subjects close to his heart: The upcoming production of Hamlet, which he’s directing, and his retirement after two breathless decades of running the little theater/art gallery/performance space that could.

His voice is soft, his tone measured. He is, as ever, both erudite and folksy, and he peppers the conversation with song lyrics from Boyz II Men, the Bluenotes and Frank Sinatra.

Jones was a professional actor for years, but much to his chagrin never got to play Shakespeare’s tormented Danish prince, one of the plummest of plum roles for any serious thespian.

At 620, the prince is being played by John H. Bambery.

“Hamlet asks the big questions,” Jones enthuses. “In his trajectory, everything’s an existential opportunity. So he grapples with it, and he grapples with it, and he grapples with it.” That grappling, of course, serves as the main motor of the drama.

Jones is 69, and dealing with a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. His health has been a concern since he had a serious dance with Covid-19 back in 2020 and 2021. It took longer than expected to recover.

He made the decision to retire, he swears, before the diagnosis. He and his longtime partner, James Howell, plan to travel and do some of the things they never had time for.

As for Hamlet, “I’m hopefully up for the challenge. But I’m glad for the challenge. Because I wanted to learn something as I make my exit.”

A playwright and stage actor who never expected to oversee a community performance space, Jones exudes humility. He describes himself as the polar opposite of Franz Kafka’s unhappy hunger artist, who “ends up in the alley; I’ve been pushed to the center”), and very like Cassie from A Chorus Line, who sings “Let me wake up in the morning to find I have somewhere exciting to go” in her big number.

“I’m just happy that this Black, dazzling urbanite from Southern California came to Florida, one of the first states to secede from the Union,” Jones explains. “And I helped start an artists’ organization built on the principle that the answer is always yes.”

Just about every single actor, director, playwright, dancer, musician, comedian, activist and artist trying to make bones in St. Petersburg over the last quarter century has encountered Bob Devin Jones. He and The Studio’s co-founder, the late Dave Ellis, established a ground rule early on: Whatever you want to do here, you won’t be turned away.

There was no guarantee, back in 2004, that it would succeed. “I’ve never been a goal setter,” Jones admits, “like ‘There’s the hill and I’m going to take the hill.’ Most of this has been a gift. When Dave and I started The Studio, he had things that he liked to concentrate on, and I had things that I liked to concentrate on. And we did that.

“But I think our greatest contribution was coming up with the notion – as our motto – that the answer is always yes. It became our mission.

“Many people said ‘You can’t do that.’ Well, ehh. And ‘You need an elevator speech.’ Don’t have one.

“And now, we’re having a couple of the best years we’ve ever had, post-pandemic.”

He stops short of insisting his nay-sayers were completely wrong. “Not that I have any kind of false modesty, but the way I occur, it’s a moment of extreme gratitude. Hamlet tells his mother Assume a virtue if you have it not. I don’t know if I’m an arguer or a hot-tempered person. I rarely lose my temper. I keep it on an even keel. Because more than anything, I would hate to have to apologize for my behavior.”

He and Howell, he adds, have had “maybe had 10 arguments” in their nearly three decades together.

“I pout, but I don’t argue. Because I’d be good at it. But more than being good at the argument, I would hate to have to go ‘Um, sorry I said that.’”

He’s never felt the need to defend The Studio’s insistence on diversity and abject color blindness; the fact that it’s on 1st Avenue South (“straddling the line between north and south”) has always held great significance.

“Early on, we had a couple of galas at the Vinoy. And someone said ‘You can’t go to the Vinoy! Why is The Studio@620 going there?’ Because they’re in the community, and this community is diverse … and they gave us a good deal.

“To me, there’s been regrets. (Singing) I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention … Because I’ve been well-met at this town. I don’t feel menaced at all. I have the phone numbers of several of the last mayors. I have the Key to the City.”

What does that get you into, Jones is asked.

“All the lavatories between here and the Gulf of Mexico.”

Jones timed his retirement to coincide with the 20th anniversary of The Studio@620 in June, and, in a manner of speaking, his 70th birthday in August.

Erica Sutherlin, like Jones an established playwright, director and theater administrator, is taking over as artistic director. “I’m so delighted that the Board selected Erica,” Jones says. “She’s from this community. She’s been an educator over at Gibbs, she has all the credentials … but also, dare I say it, she’s a Black woman.”

620 1st Avenue S.

Hamlet, running April 25 through May 5, features a cast hand-picked by Jones, who’s never much cared for the audition process. And since he’s difficult to turn down, when he asks, the answer is always … well, you know.

It’s a tough play to direct, and a tough play to perform.

Thus, the welcome challenge.

“Shakespeare – Billy from Avon – gets into the gestures of the life of a character,” Jones explains. “And it’s so layered. He out-Freuded Freud by hundreds of years. If you got it, Shakespeare gives you that to play.

“The deployment of the English language, and the way he jams it with so much psychological activity, it requires a muscularity of the brain to just wrap your head around it. Because he’s piling on images. People are talking, but you might have almost a sonnet before you actually, empirically answer the query that’s been put before you.

“I get the same effect when I direct August Wilson. There’s so much there. You can’t play the subtext – you can only play the text. It creates its own tension. But I think that’s why we’re still doing Shakespeare 500 years past its sell-by date.”

It’s all about “the words, and the words, and the words,” he insists.

“There are many things you can extrapolate from Hamlet. And you don’t have to underline them, put them in parentheses or italics – just speak the speech, I pray you, like I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. And I like Shakespeare with a swiftness.

“There’s a line in one of his history plays: I have wasted time, now time doth waste me.

To me, that line is as deep as To be, or not to be.

For Hamlet information and tickets, click here.


























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