Evan Hoffman made his stage debut as a fourth grader: He was cast as a child in a Herndon High School production of The Music Man. Shortly after, he performed in Herndon, Virginia–based Elden Street Players’ very first children’s show: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Today, Hoffman serves as artistic director of Elden Street’s successor — NextStop Theatre Company.
The theater draws its name from its proximity to the small town’s once-active train stop. These days Herndon is a growing outer suburb, 23 miles from Washington, DC, with blooming tech opportunities for an educated workforce. Hoffman, who calls himself a “hometown boy,” is in his tenth year as NextStop’s artistic director.
“Herndon, while being a really bustling place, has managed to maintain a sense of local community. It still feels like a town, not just a neighborhood or a mini city,” said Hoffman, who lives there with his wife. With Reston, a mini-city, and booming Tysons nearby, he describes his hometown and theater town as being “between this beautiful little small community-focused town and this bustling, rapidly growing mini-metropolis — Reston and its town center. So we get the best of both worlds.”
NextStop originated as a volunteer-run community organization founded by a group of active theater lovers — including Les Zidel, David and Emmy Fallen, and Richard Downer, among many others — who named themselves after the street on which the fledgling theater was located. “Over the course of the 25 years that it was in existence as Elden Street Players,” Hoffman said, “they had a number of artistic directors and leaders who were all just community leaders who stepped up.”
Yet the theater fell outside the norm of community theaters at that time in its adventurous programming: “They weren’t interested in just doing what some people might call ‘traditional community theater fare,’” he noted. “They picked plays by choosing directors who were passionate about a show. [Some] people thought that the company wouldn’t last because it didn’t do Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and Neil Simon plays. In the late 1980s and ‘90s, they were doing Terrence McNally, adaptations of Shakespeare, and off-Broadway and regional titles — not to disparage other community theaters.”
Hoffman continued: “I was fortunate to work with many of these directors. Frankly, my artistic identity was extremely influenced by my experiences there. Even though they were not, quote-unquote, ‘professionals,’ I saw passion about the work and incredibly high standards.”
After graduating from the College of William and Mary following graduation from Herndon High School, Hoffman made the rounds as an actor in New York. Then returned to the DMV, where he performed at theaters from Signature to Round House to Toby’s. Eventually, he found himself back at Elden Street as a fledgling director. As the community theater grew from a town recreation-department activity, the nonprofit organization purchased the building, and the town of Herndon, which has always been supportive of the group, outfitted the theater as a black box with lighting, a show curtain, and more.
As Elden Street was approaching 25 years in operation, a conversation began about moving from a volunteer-led community theater to a professional company. Simultaneously, Hoffman said he was hoping to shift from acting and directing to arts administration and considered leading his own company. “As so many young artists do,” he admitted, “I wanted to be an artistic director.” Some Elden Street Players leaders approached Hoffman about professionalizing the group. “It was serendipitous,” he said. “As I was trying to forge a future, the conversations merged. After almost 25 years as a very highly respected and successful community theater, they were trying to think about the future as I was trying to forge my future.” In 2013, the shift from community theater to professional theater was completed: Elden Street became NextStop Theatre Company with Hoffman at the helm as full-time artistic director.
Since the theater professionalized a decade ago, Hoffman has produced 100 plays and musicals. At present, the theater runs on a slim not-quite $1 million annual budget. “We are a nonprofit,” he emphasized. “We don’t do this to make money, but we have big ambitions and big expenses that we control as tightly as we possibly can.”
“We’re not unique,” he said. “So many regional theaters are like that. Even some of DC’s very large regional theaters with much higher costs are also spending as much as, if not more than, they’re making. That’s the risk that theater in America faces today: It’s always been expensive, but since the pandemic, it’s even more expensive.”
NextStop’s Season Leans into Laughs and Satire
But that hasn’t put a damper on Hoffman or NextStop’s productions. The 2023/24 season opened with an ambitious farce, The 39 Steps, based on an early Alfred Hitchcock film noir, rewritten by playwright Patrick Barlow. A remount of NextStop’s very first professional production, the play is an actor’s challenge: The four actors play multiple roles and each learns every part. Before the lights go down, like a Merce Cunningham event, they draw from a hat to learn which track or role they perform at every show.
NextStop has been no stranger to musicals — even with their higher costs and more time-consuming rehearsals. Now running: Ride the Cyclone, which had a recent production at Arena Stage. The show has developed a cult following among younger audiences by virtue of TikTok. Hoffman calls it “a very experimental musical,” and he picked it exactly because it fosters such a strong response from young audiences. “One of the existential threats to theater that has always been the case is how are we going to convince a new generation to love theater,” he noted. “Ride the Cyclone is doing that in a way that not many plays are.
“I have described it to some older theater fans as this generation’s Rocky Horror Show,” he continued. “It’s weird, but it elicits such a passionate response from people, particularly people who feel like they are outsiders, which is what the show is about.”
The holiday season brings the expected, A Christmas Carol, but NextStop isn’t stuck in the dreary moralistic Dickensian era. Hoffman explained: “We are doing a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which is going to be a punk rock [version]. It will feature a lot of kids from our local community working alongside professional actors, directors, and designers, something we’ve been doing for the last 10 years. It’s a really important engagement program for us, that we give kids from this community the opportunity to perform on our stage with all of the bells and whistles that we get to use on our professional productions.” Plus, “We’re gonna do some crazy fun things with it. We’ve had enough traditional Christmas Carols.”
Two more musicals fill out the season: first, a re-invention of the laugh-filled Nunsense called Nunsense A-Men, featuring the five Little Sisters of Hoboken — in drag. Hilarity ensues. “Nunsense is a very classic, traditional musical,” the artistic director said, “but again, we had to find our own spin on it. When I found out about this version of the show [with] drag queens, given some of the awful laws that have been passing over the last couple of years, particularly affecting not only drag artists but also trans individuals, we thought: it can remind people that drag performance and gender does not need to be a scary thing. We’re taking a silly musical and making it a little bit more silly.”
Another campy take on an old film, Reefer Madness, is a tongue-in-cheek satire winking at the alarmist anti-drug 1936 film. More absurdity ensues as Reefer Madness closes the season. “With a little bit of a different kind of nostalgia, it’s such a silly musical that does not get done very often,” Hoffman said. At that point in the year, he added, “We are going to be deep in political season. A lot of theaters will probably do deeply political shows, which I didn’t want to do. We’ll have enough of that on TV and in the news.” Yet he noted the show takes on fear-mongering, societal pressures, and over-inflating innocuous news bites, “but it’s all through what is a silly, frothy musical.”
Before the pungent laughs of Reefer Madness, Jocelyn Bioh’s stinging comedy School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play recounts a tale about a queen bee and her competitive newcomer at an African boarding school. Hoffman called it “a really funny, fascinating play,” adding, “It examines a lot of the circumstances that teenage girls deal with in America. You see how much similarity there is even in a place as far away as Ghana — these women are dealing with issues in terms of beauty and relationships, social media and society.”
NextStop Looks to the Next Generation
Off stage, NextStop is committed to the next generation of theatergoers both by producing works that draw in younger audiences, like Ride the Cyclone and School Girls, and by offering classes and workshops for children and teens. That’s no surprise considering Hoffman’s nascent theater experiences began in Herndon, frequently with the then-Elden Street Players.
“We have a very large and successful summer theater program,” he reported, “along with a lot of educational programs that we run simultaneously. We work both in our theater and with local schools. We’re a busy theater. I think a lot of that comes because we’re literally the only show in town. We feel a responsibility for creating opportunities. When I was a kid, I was someone who was so desperately in love with the arts, with music and singing and playing instruments. Performing was at the core of what I did. Now I want to make opportunities for kids like me who want to participate in the arts. I didn’t even know what Arena Stage was when I was a kid living in Herndon. The Kennedy Center — I went once or twice a year.”
NextStop doesn’t compete with the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, or any of the metropolitan regional theater companies, even the relatively recent addition to the Northern Virginia landscape, Capital One Hall. It doesn’t need to. “We do a lot of theater here in Herndon. There are almost a million people that live within about a 15-mile radius of us, just in Fairfax County and Loudoun County — not including the District of Columbia or Arlington at all.”
With its 114-seat black box theater, NextStop isn’t at a loss for audiences. If folks want to come out from the District, Montgomery County, or other parts of the region, that’s terrific, said Hoffman, “but they’re not our focus. We’re happy to welcome ’em, but at the end of the day, I am serving the community around here in Herndon. I’m a big proponent of the idea that when people go to the theater, they should feel like have a stake in it, that it belongs to them.”
He added, “We are a theater company that is so closely tied to our community and our identity.” NextStop Theatre Company is Herndon’s only show in town.
SEE ALSO: NextStop Theatre Company announces 2023/24 season (news story, June 6, 2023)
To keep up with NextStop Theatre Company, visit nextstoptheatre.org.
About the Wendi Winters Memorial Series: DC Theater Arts has partnered with the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to honor the life and work of Wendi Winters, the DC Theater Arts writer who died in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. To honor Wendi’s legacy, the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation has funded the Wendi Winters Memorial Series, monthly articles to be produced by DC Theater Arts to bring attention to theater companies and theater practitioners in our region who engage in exemplary work that makes our community a better place. The centerpiece of these articles is a series we are calling “The Companies We Keep,” articles offering an in-depth look at one local theater company each month. In these times of division and conflict, DC Theater Arts chooses to celebrate those who do good.