Ian Barford certainly picked the right place to fall into acting.
He came to Illinois State in 1984 to play tennis on scholarship, without any big career plans. On a whim he took an acting class for non-theatre majors and really liked it. Little did he know that Illinois State’s competitive theatre program was already building a national reputation because several former students founded the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company a decade earlier.
Flash-forward 30 years, and now it’s Barford who’s considered one of the School of Theatre and Dance’s most successful graduates. Barford is one of the stars of Broadway’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which recently won five Tony Awards, including Best Play.
Barford has appeared in several movies and TV shows, but he returns to the stage again and again.
“For me, the stage is where actors have the purest relationship to an audience,” Barford said. “The curtain goes up, and it’s all alive in the moment. There’s no manufacturing.”
Barford discovered that love at Illinois State, where he trained under the same faculty members as the Steppenwolf alums. Steppenwolf’s famous faces, such as John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf, loomed large over the theatre department in the 1980s—aspirational figures for the students. The faculty “felt a certain amount of pride and connection to the success” of Steppenwolf, he said.
“We revered them so much and looked up to them so much,” Barford said. “For a lot of us, it was sort of a dream to go up and work for Steppenwolf. That’s what ended up happening with me.”
Indeed, Barford’s audition in 1988 won him ISU’s coveted acting internship at Steppenwolf. His first show on Steppenwolf’s main stage, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice in 1993-94, traveled to Broadway.
Barford became a company member at Steppenwolf in 2007, though he was a regular performer there long before then. His long list of theatre credits includes performances in London, Chicago, and New York.
Though Barford and his family are based in Chicago, he’s been living in New York since last fall because of Curious Incident. In the show (based on a book of the same name) Barford plays Ed, a working-class single parent to a 15-year-old boy with special needs who falls under suspicion for killing a neighbor’s dog.
“It’s an interesting part. I really do enjoy playing it,” Barford said. “There’s love, there’s violence, there’s grief, there’s reconciliation. It’s a full plate.”
It’s hardly his first brush with the Tonys. He was an original cast member in August: Osage County, the Tony Award-winning play born at Steppenwolf (that later became a film with Meryl Streep).
Not long before the 2015 Tonys, Barford met with a visiting group from Illinois State’s School of Theatre and Dance who were in New York for their annual trip. Among those in the Curious Incident audience were President Larry Dietz, Marlene Dietz, and retired theatre professor Sandi Zielinski ’67, M.F.A. ’81.
In addition to Zielinski, Barford is quick to rattle off several other theatre faculty members who made a big impact on him, including the late Cal Pritner and Jean Scharfenberg. They also brought in outside educators like famed acting coach Uta Hagen, whose kind words to Barford during a workshop cemented his love of acting.
“The professors were very dynamic,” he said. “They were very, very good teachers. If I had to identify a single value that the faculty was most known for, I’d say it was believability—a truthful approach to acting.”
Barford’s Curious Incident run ends in September. He plans to come back and visit ISU to speak to students.
“I had a really good experience there,” he said. “I have very fond memories of ISU.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.