On Jan. 11, 2016, the Sixth Annual Clive Barnes Awards announced winners for their dance and theatre awards — pegging one performer in each category as the "one to watch." With past winners lists boasting names like Nina Arianda, Rob McClure, Annaleigh Ashford and Alex Sharp, you have to admit that the Awards' track record is on the money.
The Awards — and the associated Clive Barnes Foundation — were founded shortly after the passing of their namesake, Clive Barnes. Barnes served as the theatre critic for the New York Times from 1965 to 1977, then the dance and drama critic for the New York Post from 1978 until weeks before his death in 2008. More than a critic, Barnes considered himself as a shepherd of aspiring talent. "He also was a big supporter of young actors, dancers, young artists and he had relationships with quite a few of him. They'd ask for his advice," says his widow and founder of the organization and its honors, Valerie Taylor-Barnes. "After he died I got a lot of letters from various people saying how very kind he had been to them — how they valued his advice. So I thought, 'Why do we stop it? Why can't we do that?'"
Since 2009, Taylor-Barnes and her committee of ten additional voters have been seeking out up-and-coming talent in the worlds of dance and theatre — nominating four finalists and singling out one winner in each category. In just a few years, the Awards have begun to establish themselves as an authority on rising talent.
At the inaugural awards in 2010, Nina Arianda won. She went on to win a Tony Award in 2012 for her work in Venus in Fur. In 2011, Annaleigh Ashford was named a finalist for her work in Off-Broadway's Rent; she just closed Broadway's Sylvia ,where she earned top billing alongside Matthew Broderick and Julie White. The following year was a big one: Rob McClure caught the committee's eye for his work in Chaplin in the title role. He was nominated for a Tony for that same work — even though the show had closed months before the June ceremony; Joaquina Kalukango was a finalist that year and is now on Broadway in the powerhouse cast of The Color Purple; and Derek Klena, also recognized, went on to perform in Broadway's Wicked and The Bridges of Madison County. Phillippa Soo earned a nod from the foundation in 2013 and now takes on the role of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton in the paradigm-shifting Hamilton. Last year's theatre winner, Alex Sharp, went on to win a Tony for his Broadway debut in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
How does the committee hit the nail on the head? "Luck," laughs Taylor-Barnes. In all seriousness, the judges hone in on a special quality, a presence. "I think really there's a certain boldness and a certain sense of invention that they [all] have as a performer," says committee member James Sutton. "You're looking for surprise — people who can surprise you with what they do. You're looking for that humanness. They touch you on a personal level, and that's really the biggest thing that I always look for. You know it when you see it."
In fact, this year the full committee saw it in one actor. "This year, actually, [for] the theatre one, we all said, '100 percent. Right,'" says Taylor-Barnes of the unanimous vote for Dave Thomas Brown and his work in The Legend of Georgia McBride.
Still, as years past have proven, we should keep a close eye on the other finalists: Jack DiFalco (Mercury in Fur), Sandra Mae Frank/Katie Boeck (Spring Awakening) and Austin P. McKenzie (Spring Awakening). It's the first time the committee named multiple actors from the same production as finalists. "It's the luck of a season, too, because sometimes a role will just reveal the [actors] in a certain way," says Sutton. "We're looking for that combination of opportunity meets preparation. They get an opportunity and we try to catch that."