GB Interviews - Evan Hoffmann of NextStop Theatre Company

This has been my hardest blog to get started because I didn’t know how to go about relaying how much I love going to our local theatre. I don't remember being a big theater lover when I was growing up. I didn't have anything against the theater but I wasn't clamoring to get on stage or to read the latest Broadway news. My older sister, Carrie, was a big drama geek. She was in all the high school shows. She even roped me into performing as a kid in her high school performance of Damn Yankees. Damn Yankees is story that revolves around baseball including the Washington Senators baseball team. I happened to be the baseball nerd that owned a Washington Senators Starter jacket in 1992 so I got the part.

Even after college I wasn't seeking out the theater experience. It really wasn't until moving to Herndon, VA that I fell in love with the theatre (see how I changed the spelling there?). I remember reading the Fairfax County Times to learn that the former Elden Street Players was hiring a staff to restructure as a professional theater company called NextStop Theatre Company. Being a lover of all things local, I thought it would be fun to get some tickets and check it out. After our first show, The 39 Steps, Rizzo and I fell in love with NextStop, purchased season tickets.

Since I know nothing about theatre beyond the fact that I enjoy going I decided to take a different route on this blog. I can’t tell you why I like going to the theatre so I tried to find someone who could. That is when I reached out and was able to sit down with Evan Hoffmann, Producing Artistic Director of Next Stop Theatre Company. Here is Evan’s official bio and headshot:

Photo by Rebekah Purcell, VSION

Photo by Rebekah Purcell, VSION

Evan Hoffmann is a professional actor and director who has worked extensively in the DC area, as well as nationally and internationally.  At NextStop he has directed Deathtrap, The Secret Garden, Gutenberg! The Musical, Miss Electricity, Into the Woods, The 39 Steps, Caroline, or Change, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Metamorphoses. His other local professional credits include work with Signature Theatre, Ford’s Theater, American Century Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre, Imagination Stage, Olney Theatre Center, Centerstage in Baltimore, Encore Stage and Studios, and Toby’s Dinner Theatre, among others.  Evan toured with the American Shakespeare Center Repertory Company, performing the title role in Henry V.
Evan graduated from Herndon High School and, in 2000, was the first recipient of the award for outstanding actor in a musical at the inaugural Washington, DC Area Cappie Awards.  He received his bachelor’s degree in Theater from the College of William and Mary.  In 2009, Evan was named as an International Fellow at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Evan and I got to talk for a few minutes after Rizzo and I attended the most recent performance at NextStop, Deathtrap, with our friends Kevin and Brenn. I was nervous as hell since (1) I’m not a reporter, journalist, or even a writer that can use correct grammar; (2) my biggest fear is having to talk to strangers in small groups, which you will get to read about in a later blog; and (3) I had no idea what to ask. Even with all this working against me I managed the courage to ask a few questions. It was great actually sitting on the set of the show, Evan lounging on the couch and me in the armchair. I recorded our conversation so I could transpose it word for word as to not miss anything.

Wesley Clark (GB): So, I've never done this before and so I'm just going to start banging out questions. We have your head shot and your bio.

Evan Hoffman (EH): Awesome. Ask me anything I'm an open book.

GB: The challenging question I saved until the end. It's not challenging I just think it's more thought provoking than anything else unlike, uh, what was your first experience in theater in general?

EH: You know, I don't actually remember the first time I went to a theater. I have vague memories of going to see, my grandparents taking me to see the Velveteen Rabbit when I was a little kid and I remember I went and saw a production of Little Shop of Horrors at a high school when I was probably six or seven.

GB: I can only imagine Suddenly Seymour at a high school.

EH: Yeah right. But the most vivid early memory I have, actually, was I went a saw a production of Godspell at a community theater around here and I remember thinking the show was really cool but what I remember the most was after the show the entire cast came out in the lobby in costume. My mom knew one of the actors in the show and it was cool seeing her in person but what was huge for me is I got to meet the guy who met Jesus. I was probably eight and I thought he was Jesus and I got his autograph and he signed it "Jesus". And so I flipped out because I had The Jesus' autograph and I went to school the next day and told everyone "Guess who I met yesterday? JESUS! And I got his autograph" And I remember thinking that was the coolest thing ever. That is the earliest, concrete memory that I have.

GB: That's great. What was the first paying gig? Clearly you did high school. I knew you were in theater in high school from your bio but what was the first paying gig?

EH: The first paying gig I ever had as an actor was when I was in college I got a job after my sophomore year, so I would have been 19, not quite 20. I got a summer stock gig in Daytona Beach, FL, which summer in Daytona Beach is a pretty sweet place to do summer stock.

GB: It could be worse.

EH: So I did four shows over the course of 8 weeks. I was in a production of Pinocchio. The first thing we did was 1776. And we also did the Gondoliers which is a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. We did Jekyll and Hyde. So 1776 is technically the first play I was ever paid to be in. And I remember that quite vividly because it was so crazy to me. I had done 30 or 40 shows to that point in community theater and high school and so the end of the first week when someone handed me a paycheck I thought, for real, you're going to pay me for this thing I would do for free anyway?

GB: Who were you in 1776?

EH: I was Col. Thomas McKean. The big, Scottish Continental Congressmen.

GB: Because the only time I've seen it is the movie production and I can't think of the actors name but I can think of is Mr. Feeny, he was John Adams I think, Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World running around as John Adams.

EH: (Laughing) Yeah, he was the original John Adams when it was on Broadway. I don't know how many people in the movie were from the Broadway production but I remember thinking the same thing when I watched the movie. I was like Oh my god, Mr. Feeny!

GB: (Laughing) So how did you go from performing to actually being an Artistic Director. This position at NextStop.

EH: I went from performing to directing to artistic directing. And I went from performing to directing, I started to do that when I was in college. The horrible reason for that was I was slowly finding the more I performed after years and years of performing I had far too many opinions on how everyone else should be doing their job and I found it harder and harder go keep my mouth shut about it. Actors who can't keep their mouth shot about how everyone else is supposed to be doing their job are not very good actors. At least their not the actors anyone wants to work with so I decided I was going to try.

And it extended beyond just acting. I had ideas on how the show should be blocked and how the lights should be used and sound effects. One of my professions said, you know the director actually gets to be a part of all of that. I went to William and Mary and my degree, at William and Mary it's not a conservatory program. They don't have just one, you don't just get to focus on one area.

You go to a conservatory theater you are just studying to be an actor or you are just studying to be a lighting designer or whatever it is but because it was just a bachelor's program not a conservatory you actually get to dabble in everything. It's just a completely different approach to learning but because of my program I was forced to try everything and liked everything. So I switched from being an actor to primarily a director because I got to dabble in everything. I got to spend time with the designers, with the actors, with the tech crew working through everything and helping them decide how to do their job.

After directing for awhile I realized I wanted (laughing) even more power. I was just drunk on the power (laughing more). So, the big thing a director doesn't get, generally, is at much leverage to decide what kinds of work you do. You are contacted by a company and they are hiring people to direct a certain show and you just apply. There aren't as many companies that say hay director what show do you want to do. It's like this is the show we are doing do you want to do it? Artistic Director are the people who get to make that decision. They say this is not only do I get to direct it I get to pick what I'm going to direct. It's not actually the way we do it here.

GB: Which leads to my next question, how do you go about deciding what productions you are going to put on?

EH: I try and pick shows, as much as possible even though it doesn't happen 100% of the time, this company when it was Elden Street Players set up their system which was different from most community theaters and most professional theaters. Most theaters the artistic director or a committee a we are going to do this play and then we're going to do this musical and then we're going to do this comedy and people apply. If you want to direct one of those then we will pick a director. I try, at least from the start, to go to directors I like and I try to see as much theater as I can which is never enough, and I'll say okay this is clearly a talented director. I'll go to the direct and ask what are you interested in doing versus me just saying this is the play do you want to do it. What excites you, what fascinates you as a piece you'd love to work on. And that's how Elden Street set up its system and I really believe in it means there is more passion involved. Just being hired to direct Oklahoma! is great but it wasn't your choice really. But if I go to a director and ask what do you want to do and they say I have always wanted to do South Pacific. I have this really neat idea for how I would approach it, there is more energy behind it. If the director is enthusiastic about the project it is a lot easier for them to inspire all the actors and designers and to be the guiding force and the energy that makes the show more interesting rather than going through the motions because this is what we were told we are going to do.

GB: I could be wrong but it could bring in more creativity from someone else. It opens up the chance to say, you wrote something? Great what is it.

EH: It enables us to have a much more varied season. A lot of theater companies have a genre of work they do. There are Shakespeare companies and there are musical theater companies and there are companies that only do brand new works and there are companies that only do the classics. Where as when I go out and I ask a bunch of directors what are you interested to do one of them will say I've always wanted to do Hamletand one of them will say My Fair Lady and one of them will say I have this brand new play that I just read and has never been produced. That is how we, as a company, end up with the kind of variety and such eclectic seasons because its not just based on my scope of knowledge of what plays are out there. Half the plays that people suggest to me I have to go read because I've never read them before which opens up and provides the company a much wider range than I can provide individually. There is only so much I can know about theater. There are people that know much more about it than me but I'm able to collect information from people that way.

GB: In a dream world, where would NextStop go? Would it be a big, would it keep growing to be like a Kennedy Center or does big not always mean better?

EH: Big does not always mean better. I would like us to grow a lot. In my dream world, and our board discusses this a lot, and we are in the process of passing a strategic plan which speaks to this, I would like us to grow our audiences and our artists largely so we can do more but not necessarily bigger space wise. If someone said tomorrow, "Evan I will build NextStop a 1,000 seat theater" I'd say no thank you. Because one of the things I love most about here is that there are only six rows. That the back row is only 19 feet from the stage and that we have the kind of intimacy we have here. I would grow so we could pay everyone more because everyone would like that. (Looking to cast and crew who are working on the stage while we chat on the set) James would love to get paid more more!

James: (laughing) I'm not going to say no!. (James Finley is one of the stars of the current production of Deathtrap at NextStop).

EH: So we can invest even more in the work we are doing. As opulent as some of the things we are doing now seem they are still done on a tiny budget.

GB: I don't know. Sitting up in that back row the set looks amazing. We walked in and it was one of the, I don't know if it is, but it seemed like one of the more elaborate sets that you've done.

EH: Yeah, this is one of the biggest sets we've done but there are lots of theater companies that would spend twice as much as we spent on this on their smallest shows. Even given the same amount of space. As far as growing, we have talked to the town of Herndon about building a new theater eventually. I love this space but the biggest problem with the space is that no one knows its here because we are in the back of this industrial park.

It's not the perfect theater but its a really great space. So we've talked to the town of Herndon and if we built a new theater we wouldn't build more than 200 seats.

(Evan and I take a break to move some set pieces to help the crew. Mainly because we were lounging on a couch and chair while these hard working individuals were trying to move tables and chairs and we were in the way)

So, if we continue to grow and grow and grow and maximize this facility or any facility. I'd rather have four 250 seat theaters than one 1,000 seat theater. I would never want to get to a place where, not that there is anything wrong with the Kennedy Center, but I get bored with the Kennedy Center because the only seats I can afford are a football field away from stage. At that point I'd almost rather watch a movie because I can at least see what's going on.

GB: How do you go about getting people, especially in Herndon, that don't know that a theater is there? What are the challenges to get someone in. Not everyone is into theater but this is a really great place. That's how I got here. I know nothing about theater, at all, but how would you convince me to come in here.

EH: Well, that is a huge challenge, probably the biggest challenge we have right now, is reaching new audiences because there is no really good Herndon newspaper. By good I mean how many people it reaches. There is the Herndon Connection but it has such a small readership. Not everyone in Herndon gets the Herndon Connection and we also want to reach a wider range than just Herndon.

Nobody gets to everyone in this area. Everyone in Washington D.C. sees the Washington Post to a certain extent. Not everyone in Herndon sees any one thing. So advertising is hard.

Our biggest success has been through our patrons. That is why we do things like we did with Deathtrap, where every subscription we gave away a free ticket to bring a friend.

GB: We had two here tonight.

EH: Yeah! The thing we have found is getting people in the door the first time, that is the hardest. It is making them realize that this exists at all. We feel once we get people in that door, because you stand outside and you think "There's a theater in there?". But once you walk through that door we feel pretty good about the experience we provide from entering the door to leaving the door. From the lobby to concessions to getting people in the theater and whatever show we are doing the quality is strong. We feel that once people get in the door we can prove to them that this is an awesome thing to do and getting them to come back is a lot easier. That's why we do this every year that please, every subscriber bring a friend on us, for free because it is important to us to get more bodies through the door. Then just shouting it from the rooftops any way we can.

Not having marque value, the ability for someone to just drive by and someone to go "oh, there's a theater there" is the biggest struggle we have.

GB: Which is unfortunate because this whole area and by that I mean where the theater is sitting there's a brewery that just opened. I'm a giant craft beer nerd. That just opened which is great. There is Taste of the World. That place is outstanding. There's a bakery. There's all kinds of stuff in here but it has the appearance of just an industrial park and there is so much stuff if people would just come and check it out.

EH: I'm actually on the board of the condo association and I think we should really get new signage because no one thinks there is anything in here.

GB: Everyone thinks there's a Dunkin Donuts and that's it.

EH: And I don't blame people for that. Why would you think there is a theater in the back of an industrial park?

GB: But it makes for a nice space because it has a big open building, making it easy to build sets. Why should someone support local theater? Especially in the DC area where you can go to Kennedy Center or Ford's Theatre or some of these big production houses where you can go see big sets.

EH: A number of reasons. One, it's good for our economy for people who actually live out here. Americans for the Arts has done studies that every time someone goes to an arts institution, they spend an additional $19 per person on average if they are local into the local economy into restaurants and retail. If they are non-local they spend an average of about $46 on hotels and other things. So, arts boost the local economy.

The other thing we tell people is we can save you a whole lot of money. A subscription here is still costs the same as one ticket to the Kennedy Center before you park. So there is a huge savings and its supporting your community.

And you get the same value because we have had dozens of people that have performed here in the last three years have performed at the Kennedy Center. You could pay $120 for one ticket to sit in the orchestra at the Kennedy Center and see a person on that stage or you can pay $35 to see them here and sit 4-feet from them. So there is just a value proposition there.

GB: Every Patrick Stewart played at a local theater before they were on big stages.

EH: Right. We've had three people who have been on Broadway in shows here. We have one of our actors that were in Richard III our first season on Broadway now.

GB: That was so interesting how that was done.

EH: One of the deaf actresses is now the star of Spring Awakening on Broadway.

GB: Wow. That's great.

EH: So people are paying $300 a ticket to see her on Broadway and we were her first professional job.

GB: That's outstanding. I totally agree. I started a tradition where I go see A Christmas Carol somewhere on stage. The first time I saw it was in Staunton.

EH: At Blackfriars.

GB: Yeah. And we've ended up finding interesting places. Rochester, Michigan? I mean no one is going to Rochester, Michigan.

EH: Did you go to Rochester, Michigan just to see A Christmas Carol?

GB: Just to see A Christmas Carol. We saw it in New Haven, Connecticut because friends of ours lived up there and we drove over to some random Rhode Island town. We went to Cleveland. Who goes to Cleveland to see A Christmas Carol? Yeah, this guy. The last couple of years we haven't gone far with the kid but this year we're going to the Little Theatre in Alexandria. But it's so much better because the people on stage really want to be there. And, not to say it's true for everyone clearly, but sometimes you get the feeling that some of the big productions are full of people that are in it to get famous not just to perform. I don't know anything about it but they don't seem to give it as much effort if that makes sense. Last question. This is the tough one.

EH: Okay, the tough one. I'm ready.

GB: If you could only pick one production to participate in; act, direct, produce, whatever, what would it be? And it can go anywhere it can go here, it can be a giant stage, this size theater, anywhere, just one. Your dream production. (Some crew of the theater come by to see us so I turn to them) I asked him what is dream production is.

EH: (sighing) Oh my. You're killing me. Dream production. You're killing me. What? (The crew didn't leave) You're waiting to hear.

CREW: Yeah!

GB: They want to know what they're doing next season.

EH: Oh god! I don't know! I've ticked off a bunch of shows. I ticked them off my list. I haven't actually ticked off the shows. They're mad at me! Again, that is the coolest thing about my job is I want to do this thing and it becomes real.

Right now I'd do shows here because I'm so comfortable here and I'm so proud of what we've accomplished here and I'm very happy directing here. I really want to do Peter and the Starcatcher which was on Broadway a few years ago. Based on the Dave Berry book. It's twelve actors. It was originally written for 11 men and 1 woman though that could be changed.

I love the show because it is incredibly fantastic in scope. It's Neverland and Peter Pan and all that stuff. It's his origin story before he was Peter Pan. But unlike the musical Peter Pan they don't have special effects. There's no fly system but they fly. And there is Tinkerbell and by that I mean they do everything through theatrical magic versus special effects magic.

To fly instead of putting someone on a wire and pulling them up trying to hide the wire; the first time someone flies it's a little girl and she and Peter are sitting on stage talking. She says, you know I know how to fly and he's like, no you don't. Prove it. What is going on is she is sitting the end of a 10-foot plank that has been set on top of a barrel and she is sitting on the low side. Just sitting cross legged on the plank. Peter you can fly, prove it! And she just kind of stops and another actor sitting on the other side of the plank just pushes down and without doing anything she just raises up. And you can see the plank and you know exactly what is going on. It's all in full view but you totally believe it. It looks like she is floating.

It's not as if they convinced you that she really is. It's just such a neat effect. That's what I loved about The 39 Steps. You see everything that is going on.

GB: That is the first show we went to and it's why we're still here.

EH: Yeah. I love that kind of theatricality. Theater is fake. We all know it. Anyone who doesn't know it is either four or is diluted. So I really like theater and that show is all about that. We are all in this illusion. What is the most clever way of accomplishing the fantastic as opposed to the most deceptive way? Tinkerbell, in that show, isn't a ball of light they project. It's a rubber glove that they just flap it. (Waving his hands wildly). And you hear the sound of wings because there's just a rubber glove going flischk flischk flischk and you totally see it. Even though its a rubber glove you just go, Ok, I'm in it. I'm in the story and I will go with you. Technically people call that willful suspension of disbelief. I find that the most fun.

That's why we do a lot of shows where people will play multiple characters because when we are this close to an audience and everyone knows its fake why not have some fun with the idea of fake versus trying to deceive someone into something. Because you can't. You know that he's not dead. You know their not dead but you go as far as you can and expect the audience to go along with it. That's the coolest show I've seen in quite some time that really embraced that idea. So I'd love to do that show.

GB: Peter and the Starcatcher.

EH: Peter and the Starcatcher.

GB: Next season?

EH: As soon as I can get the rights. You gotta give me the rights. There letting only a select few theaters, and they're all big theaters, around the country do it right now. We'll do it eventually. And it'll be awesome! But right now we can't.

GB: That has to be frustrating sometimes too. I want to do this but you can't because it cost so much to get the rights.

EH: I lose anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of the shows that I want to do. This season one of the shows we originally slated. When I originally sat down and said based upon what people have talked about we are going to do this show, this show, this show, and this show. One of those six shows was available. And the rest I had to go back to the directors and ask what else they would like to do. And we had to change some directors and some titles.

I'm thrilled with the season we have it has turned out great. Originally we weren't going to do Deathtrap we were going to do Misery, because there is a stage adaptation of Misery but it's on Broadway now. It just opened last week on Broadway. And I didn't know this at the time when I was picking a season a year ago. I just called the rights house and asked to get the rights for Misery and they said no, you can't. I said, why not!?! We can't tell you, but no you can't. Okay.

GB: All that means is what big production or who in Hollywood is remaking this?

EH: That's just like when we lost Jesus Christ: Superstar. It was the same thing. They didn't tell us we couldn't do it but they put so many restrictions on how we could do it that I told them nevermind, we aren't going to it that way. That is one of the most frustrating things about my job. We get super passionate about projects we want to do and then someone says you can't do it right now or you have to do it this way it becomes a huge bummer.

GB: Then what is the best part of your job?

EH: The best part of my job? Right now, it's scaring the pee out of an audience.

GB: Alison sat up there (point to the back row) and when he came through the door and he was supposed to be dead. And he has a log. She ripped my arm off. She was screaming at the top of her lungs. I think for the entire rest of the show she just stared at these two doors!

EH: (Laughing out loud. Really! Not the stupid LOL nonsense)

GB: She was saying the wife is going to come back through there. I don't know who is coming through the doors but someone is coming through the doors. She was scared the whole time.

EH: I've never done a thriller before but I knew I wanted to do one. I had no idea it was going to be as much fun as it has been. It's not that I truly enjoy scaring people but that moment is so validating because that is the moment the audience has bought into it. What I was talking about the flying or Tinkerbell. EVERYONE KNOWS JAMES IS NOT ACTUALLY DEAD. He's an actor. And as convincing James makes it look by turning his face bright red when he's being strangled no one, I hope, legitimately thinks we have murdered a person. If they do, they're awful for not getting up and helping.

GB: That's a different kind of show.

EH: But, despite that fact. Knowing he's alive and well and in the other room; when the doors open and he is standing there, 114 people go OH MY GOD HE'S COME BACK FROM THE DEAD! And genuinely go with that idea and that is so validating. That we are able to get people invested enough in the story that they will allow themselves to be scared by that. Because it's so not true. It's no more true than that stone is true or these beams are true (pointing to the set).

At this point Evan showed me around the set. He loved showing off all the hard work and the theater "magic" that was involved in the set. We moved away from my recording device (my cell phone) so the conversation was lost for a bit at this point but you could tell that Evan loved his job and loved talking about how the set was built. He was so proud of his crew for using a blow torch or foam to get that burnt stone look that gave the appearance of a true fireplace and the hollow pieces of plywood that have been fashioned to look like real ceiling beams.

GB: Well thank you very much. It is worth all the hard work. We showed up randomly when you became a professional theater. I saw it in the paper, we came and saw The 39 Steps, and we've been coming back ever since.

EH: Let me ask you, what has been your favorite so far?

GB: I really like musicals and, I guess it would still be musicals but not really where musicin the production but music is still involved. Like A Christmas Carol where there is lots of music in it but it isn't driving the story. I really liked Gutenberg: The Musical.

EH: I do too.

GB: I couldn't believe that someone could take Johannes Gutenberg and say, hey we are printing a book. He invented the printing press, how do we make that funny? There isn't anything inherently funny about it. It's a printing press. But I loved that show.

EH: I like that show so much because everyone that came and saw it either loved it, thought it was hysterical, or hated it. There was no middle ground. People either got it because it was their kind of humor or asked why did you do this show? And I dig that. I can't please everyone no matter what I do so why not go balls to the wall?

GB: Agreed. And we have been talking for 37 minutes and I need to let you go but thank you so much for talking with me. This was great.

EH: Thank you and thanks for supporting us.

Evan walked me out and we chatted a bit more about short term goals like replacing the seats in the theater. He is clearly passionate about NextStop Theatre and rightfully so. Evan is, and should be, proud of what he has accomplished in the third season as a professional production company at NextStop. I always look forward to when I get to go back to "my" local theater. If you are in the area please take a day to indulge in the joy that is NextStop Theatre. If not, find your local theater and become involved. You won't regret it.

http://www.nextstoptheatre.org/

 

 

 

 

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