Center stage: David Barker on acting, teaching and the art of being a mime

At first glance, ASU professor David Barker's office in Dixie Gammage Hall resembles a medieval armory or a king's torture chamber. The first thing you see when you walk in is a large rack filled with an assortment of mock swords, daggers and other weapons that glint menacingly at any student who comes in seeking extra credit the last week of the semester.

But instead of severed heads or Gothic shields, playbills line the walls. There are no scrolls, but next to the sword rack is a bookcase filled with scripts, novels, journals and a well-worn copy of "The Cat in the Hat."

The room isn't a 15th-century dungeon, but rather the workspace of a theater professional with decades of experience. Barker's office speaks of a vibrant career working in live performance and finding success along the way — and it also suggests that he has no signs of slowing down.

Barker has been teaching at ASU for 33 years, the past 20 years as a full-time professor. He also works as an actor, director, fight choreographer and a mime. He has performed on Broadway, traveled with national tours and taken his own one-man show across the country. You'd have to search long and hard to find someone with more experience in the field, and Barker loves it.

"Acting has an exhilaration that's hard to explain," he said. "The adrenaline rush is like nothing else I've ever experienced."

He fondly remembers the first time he felt that rush, his first time in the spotlight. It began when he was in first grade at a Catholic school. A nun left the class unattended and Barker stood up, walked to the front of the room and rolled his pant legs up to his knees. 

The simple act of subverting a mundane dress code sent the entire class into laughter. When the nun came back, she angrily grabbed Barker's hand and led him to the other classes in an attempt to publicly humiliate him. Instead, he made all the other classes laugh too. He was not only unembarrassed, but he found himself drawn to the attention.

That feeling is what led him to pursue a life in the spotlight.

From starving artist to teacher

After graduating from Rutgers University with a Master of Theatre Arts, Barker lived the life of a starving artist, taking work whenever and wherever he could find it. But when he and his wife started a family, he quickly realized that something would have to change.

"Actors can live on peanut butter and ramen, but you don't want to put a family through that," he said. "With a family came a new set of responsibilities."

He took a job teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara from 1981 to 1983, but the astronomical cost of living coupled with the meager salary of a visiting lecturer meant that his family shared a tiny, cramped apartment. The family then moved to Tempe and Barker began to teach at ASU in 1983. He quickly fell in love with the city and its theater community.

Since then, Barker has directed productions with the Southwest Shakespeare Company, Actors Theatre of Phoenix, Desert Foothills Theatre, Phoenix Theatre Studio and Herberger Theatre Center, among others. He recently directed the original U.S. production of "Cat in the Hat" with Childsplay theater, which is currently on a nationwide tour.

Staging reality

Barker has also acted out dozens of roles in Arizona, across the country and around the world. One of his greatest accomplishments is a solo show that he wrote, produced and performed in 11 states, inspired by real-life events.

In 2004, Barker's brother-in-law shot at and attempted to kill him and his sister. Barker's sister was shot in the chest. Although she eventually recovered from her injuries, his brother-in-law was sentenced to prison and they divorced.

As a part of his own recovery from the trauma of the event, Barker began journaling and compiling material that eventually evolved into a one-man autobiographical show titled "Dodging Bullets." The performance jumps between characters to tell the story of Barker's life, his family, and the events surrounding the fateful encounter with his brother-in-law.

Barker has performed "Dodging Bullets" over 55 times since its debut. He's been asked to do the show as a part of trauma, gender and domestic violence conferences, and he even served as the keynote for the Annual Day of Prayer at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.

"It's very emotional," he said.  "It's very intense. When I first started doing the show in 2009, it was therapeutic. Cathartic. (Now) it's just another show. I've been able to distance myself from the emotion of it."

However, not all his work is as darkly intense as "Dodging Bullets."

By far Barker's longest-running production is "Out of My Mime," a solo mime show that he has performed over 450 times since 1977, including performances in Mexico, China and Greece. The family-friendly production combines "illusion pantomime, clowning, masks and spoken word," according to his website

In addition to acting and directing, Barker said he enjoys working as a fight coordinator, with a goal to choreograph battles that appear real to the audience without harming the actors involved. He's staged fights for over 150 productions using broadsword, rapier and dagger, quarterstaff, knife, sword and shield, found objects and unarmed techniques. Currently he is coordinating fights with local productions of "She Kills Monsters," "Pete" and "Othello."

Off-stage influence

With so much experience onstage and behind the curtain, as a professor Barker is able to help students develop a process for creating art and solving their problems independently. 

"My goal as a teacher is to help students understand how they're able to create art, so they come up with their own answers," he said. "It's important that when they're creating a role they have new ideas of how to tackle putting a performance together."

John Wilson graduated from ASU in 1990 and is now the chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Central Missouri. He credited Barker as an inspiration to his own role as a theater professor, and likened Barker's teaching to a religious experience.

"Going to class with David was like going to church," Wilson said. "He was a pastor of his craft. He was so well-versed in what the body, voice and imagination could provide the actors that he revolutionized what I knew acting to be."

It's not just his students who benefit from Barker's insight. 

Randy Messersmith is professional actor, director, professor and founder of the Southwest Shakespeare Company. He has worked with Barker countless times in the past several decades and described his colleague as a "joyous risk-taker" who constantly pushes the envelope to develop shows.

"He's not going to follow the status quo," Messersmith said. "He's going to look for ways that once again challenge an audience's expectations, and that's why quite honestly his productions are very interesting to not only be a part of but to (watch)."

Messersmith also said that he appreciates how Barker's focus as a director is on the actors, not the costumes and props.

"All his productions are very much about the power of the actor, and that's why he's considered one of the best directors in the Phoenix area," he said.

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Reach the reporter at skylar.mason@asu.edu or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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