(Ben Lauer, Carolyn Kashner and Ethan Sinnott rehearse RICHARD III at NextStop Theatre. This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
Diversity & Inclusion blog salon: Disability in the American Theatre
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
EVAN HOFFMANN: I am proud and honored to be the Producing Artistic Director for NextStop Theatre Company in Herndon, Virginia. I am responsible for all aspects of both the artistic and administrative operations and growth of the company.
I am currently overseeing our production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which is being directed by Dr. Lindsey D. Snyder. This amazing production is a bold re-imagining of one of Shakespeare’s most deliciously evil villains, not as a hunchback, but as a Deaf man seeking power in a hearing world. As a part of this production, we are blessed to have the role of Richard being played by Ethan Sinnott, who is the Program Director for the Theatre Department at Gallaudet University in DC. Joining him is a remarkable cast of some of the region’s finest hearing and Deaf actors.
JL: Where do you live? How has your community addressed issues of disability for its theatre artists and administrators, and also its audience? How has this impacted your work?
EH: I currently live in Arlington, Virginia with my wife and son, but I grew up in Herndon. (Both are a part of the suburbs of Washington, DC.) While there is always room for improvement, I have to say that I think that the DC theatre community has really been a model for recognizing and addressing disabilities in the theatre. Many of our theatres, both large and small, have welcomed artists with disabilities into their families and DC has even served as the home for theatres that are specifically focused on the work of disabled artists, like Open Circle.
This open and inclusive environment has had a tremendous effect on me over the past ten years. I have been blessed to work with such a remarkable range of artists, each with unique and exceptional skills and perspectives that they bring to the table. As a result I am trying to insure that environment is always present at NextStop.
JL: Do we need disability based theaters and programs? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?
EH: I don’t know that the real issue is the specific need for disability-based theatres and programs, so much as the need for cultivation and encouragement of artists with disabilities. If an individual or group of artists with disabilities is compelled by their artistic passion to band together and start a theatre company, more power to them. But existing theatres should also be constantly considering how they are able to support all kinds of artists and in particular, how artists with disabilities might bring new insight and perspective to their work and company.
JL: What practical action steps and/or resources would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies who would like to address issues of accessibility for its artists and administrators, and audiences?
EH: Theatre companies should constantly be reaching out to artists in their community and listening to their thoughts and ideas on what stories and groups are being underrepresented in their community. Then look for opportunities to tell those stories and/or evaluate how those groups could help inform the stories that the company likes to tell.
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of disability in theatre?
EH: Great theatre is about telling stories of overcoming adversity. Addressing disabilities as the subject of work and/or including artists with disabilities to help inform and add perspective to the struggle to overcome any challenge are powerful tools for theatre.
JL: As an advocate of disability in the theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?
EH: There is this playwright named Bill Shakespeare, who has some remarkable works that address the full spectrum of the human condition. I look forward to seeing a lot more of his work re-considered with actors of every shape, size and ability!
(Ben Lauer and Ethan Sinnott rehearse RICHARD III at NextStop Theatre.)
Evan Hoffmann is the Producing Artistic Director of NextStop Theatre Company in Herndon, Virginia. In 2013, he was responsible for the transition of the company’s operations from the Elden Street Players, a 25-year-old community theatre, to one of the ambitious and rapidly growing professional theaters in the DC region. For NextStop, as has directed The 39 Steps, Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. As an actor, Evan has worked for such respected companies as Signature Theatre, Imagination Stage, Ford’s Theatre, American Century Theatre, the American Shakespeare Center, and Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com