AOK’s Herbie Barnes becomes head of Toronto Young People’s Theatre

Herbie Barnes

TORONTO – A lifelong passion for live theatre has taken Aundeck Omni Kaning’s Herbie Barnes down an exciting path; now, he stands at the precipice of a whole new experience as artistic director of Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre (YPT).

“It’s my first real job,” quips Mr. Barnes, when contacted at his Toronto home over Zoom. “After 30 years in theatre I am feeling blessed to have this opportunity.”

Mr. Barnes’ lengthy resume in live theatre includes several stints at YPT both as a teacher, actor and playwright as well as a director. 

As one of a generation of Indigenous artists who began to make their mark in the 1990s, Mr. Barnes was among those who tore down barriers and set the bar far beyond the stereotypes that dominated portrayals of Indigenous characters.

His new play, ‘Bent Boy,’ was workshopped at YPT and shortlisted for the Sharon Enkin Plays for Young People Award in 2020.

The actor grew up in Toronto and found himself captivated by the improv performances he saw downtown, taking every opportunity to prepare himself for the craft. “I took in every course I could find, mime, improv, you name it,” he said. “I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be in the arts.”

One of his teachers took 10 students downtown to see a performance at the old street car barn on Toronto’s Front Street (YPT’s 123-year-old heritage theatre) and Mr. Barnes found himself hooked. “The next week there were two of us going,” he recalled, “finally, it was just me.”

But it was when he caught a performance of Tomson Highway’s ‘Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing,’ which premiered in 1989 at Theatre Passe-Muraille in Toronto, that Mr. Barnes first realized that his dream was within reach.

“I looked up on stage and saw my uncles up there, those were my aunties from back home,” he said of the characters being depicted onstage. “I knew everyone up there.”

He discovered that there was actually an Indigenous theatre company in Wiikwemkoong—Debajehmujig. The next time he was up visiting family he sent in a photograph and resumé.

“I was in my final year of high school and my mother came running into the coffee shop where me and my friends from school hung out,” he recalled. “She said ‘a guy just phoned and said he has a job for you!’”

With all the world-weary patience of a teenager he responded. “I told her ‘Mom, they don’t do it that way, he is calling me for an audition’,” recalled Mr. Barnes. “That guy” turned out to be the legendary Larry E. Lewis of Debajehmujig Theatre and he did, in fact, offer the inexperienced young actor a job, literally sight unseen.

The play was Drew Hayden Taylor’s ‘Toronto at Dreamer’s Rock,’ and young Mr. Barnes was perfect for the part. “He told me what the gig paid and the per diem,” said Mr. Barnes. “Then he said, ‘when do you want to start?’.”

The play ended up travelling out west and the tour ran from September to December and, while there have been ups and downs over the road, Mr. Barnes has never looked back. “Seeing myself on the stage I said ‘I can do this’,” he said.

Tomson Highway was so impressed with what he saw of the young actor in the Hayden Taylor work that he offered him a role in one of his plays.

Mr. Barnes began his professional association with YPT when he appeared in ‘The Secret of Shhh’ in 1993.

“I got lucky,” said Mr. Barnes. Well, lucky yes, but then there was those years absorbing everything he could about the craft. When luck came calling, Mr. Barnes was ready, willing and very able. But it was first seeing someone like himself being portrayed realistically on stage that really turned the key on his passion.

Now Mr. Barnes is taking on the role of inspiring a whole new generation of young people.

Toronto’s YPT is not a collection of young theatre wannabes putting on syrupy productions for parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Mr. Barnes explains that it is an adult theatre company that produces theatre for a young audience.

 “The purest form of theatre is theatre for young people,” he said. “Theatre for young audiences has led the charge in BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of colour) casting and hiring. It has led the charge in LGBTQ2S and BIPOC education and understanding and it is often the first to help dramatize and contextualize events in a rapidly changing and complex world.”

“Over the past year, our search committee interviewed candidates from across Canada for one of this country’s most unique artistic leadership roles,” said board co-chairs Jenine Krause and David Scandiffio in a release announcing Mr. Barnes’ appointment. “We are thrilled that Herbie, one of the theatre community’s most eclectic and beloved artists, will carry YPT forward into a very bright future. He is a visionary leader, with the heart of an eight-year-old—a perfect fit for the country’s largest and oldest theatre for young people.”

“We attract an amazing and wonderful bunch of talent,” Mr. Barnes said of YPT, noting that he hopes the works that the company brings to the stage will inspire other young people to follow their dreams and their passion.

Mr. Barnes will be officially taking up the reins at YPT this coming fall.