It's the rare theater company that doesn't have a mission statement. But how many theater artists have one? Director Eric Hoff does. He's committed, he says, to exploring "works that are at the intersection of social justice and beautiful art."
Hoff, 29, got a chance to show the world what that means early this year, when he directed Hit the Wall, Ike Holter's new play about the Stonewall riot—the 1969 Greenwich Village bar brawl that brought America's gay rights movement out of the closet.
"Eric Hoff, who guides the show with a strong hand, insures that the actors are supported by [Holter's] language, rather than overwhelmed by it," wrote the New Yorker's Hilton Als of the production, presented by the Inconvenience as part of Steppenwolf Theatre's annual Garage Rep. "I can't remember an ensemble that has danced through space as proudly and movingly as this one." Hoff, Als added, "makes us feel the vibrancy of this universe, in which some of the characters are brutalized by a policeman and fight back, giving as good as they get."
The Chicago critics concurred that Hoff had brought grace to grit, and vice versa, in Hit the Wall.
He's apparently tried to do something similar with his life. The California-born son of a Presbyterian minister who earned a master's in theater along with his divinity degree, Hoff spent the years immediately after college toiling in the "equality, peace, progress, and justice" sector. His resumé includes work for the Human Rights Campaign and Americorps; he also did environmental PR and helped get Arizona Democrat Gabby Giffords elected to Congress in 2006.
Constructive as all that was, it turned out to be a holding action—a failed attempt, as Hoff sees it, to stay out of the much tougher life of the theater. In 2008 he finally gave in and moved to Chicago to try his hand. The tall, bearded ringer for Beach Boy Brian Wilson now divides his time between this city and New York.
Hoff's latest local project is a promenade-style staging of The Skriker for Red Tape Theatre. The tale of a nasty, needy, ancient faerie who stalks two young women in modern-day London, Caryl Churchill's 1994 script sounds like a spooky deviation from the social justice/beautiful art theme. "But it's actually about ecology and the environment," Hoff says. "It's extremely political, and it deals with gender issues perhaps more than anything." He laughs, as if overwhelmed by the audacity of his own claims for the show. "I mean, it's really about civilization and the downfall of what we're doing."
And like Hit the Wall, The Skriker is calculated to leave an audience with nowhere to hide. Hoff wants us to "feel like this is all happening around us and we have to choose whether or not we want to be part of it. You're wrestling with the demons of the world—both metaphorically and quite literally right in front of your face."
9/13-10/20: Thu-Sun 8 PM, Red Tape Theatre, Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont, redtapetheatre.org, $15-$25.