By third grade, Wesley Barnes '15, knew what he wanted to do with his life: perform.
Since graduating from Concordia University Irvine (CUI), the New York City resident's career has flourished, with appearances in Magic of the Dance in Germany and Taiwan, a production of In the Heights at Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, Texas, the play Choir Boy at the Briggs Opera House in Vermont, and The Scottsboro Boys at Phoenix Theatre in Arizona.
So how does a kid from South Central Los Angeles end up performing in theater productions around the world?
Growing up, Barnes had seen others succumb to the hardships of his neighborhood. For Barnes, finding an outlet in the arts guided him like a comforting beacon.
"(South Central Los Angeles is) an area where you see and hear a lot, so you're forced to grow up a little quicker than you'd like to," he said. "I have friends and family members whose stories didn't end up quite like mine..."
For someone with talent and determination, a good school can make a difference. After attending a college fair, Barnes found a great fit in CUI.
Factors that attracted him to the private Lutheran university included its strong sense of community, personal attention from faculty, and the ability to take theatre classes in the first year.
"... I loved that class sizes were small," he continued. "I loved that you weren't restricted to one area of study. I loved that I didn't have to wait to be in productions, as other schools would make you wait two years. CUI was a place that I knew I would get the attention that I needed to be nurtured and (enable me to) grow as an artist, student, human being, and believer, which was a plus that I hadn't considered in a school before."
CUI was a place that I knew I would get the attention that I needed to be nurtured and (enable me to) grow as an artist, student, human being, and believer, which was a plus that I hadn't considered in a school before.
A star is born
Around the third grade, Barnes landed the role of Dorian, the male equivalent of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
"That was the moment I realized it was more than just the people at my church who thought I was talented," Barnes said.
His talents led him to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. As a senior, he'd set his sights on specific conservatory programs and universities known for their theatre programs. CUI had not yet registered on his radar until he attended a college fair and spoke with an admissions counselor. That conversation led Barnes to attend CUI's Fine Arts Preview Day.
A welcoming campus
"From the moment my mother and I pulled up to the gate, I was impressed by the beauty of the campus," Barnes said. "Throughout that visit, I was surprised by the amount of hospitality I was shown. I got to meet students and faculty members who shared their experience with me. I felt at home. I felt that it was a place that wanted me as much as I needed it."
Barnes began attending CUI in 2011, majoring in theatre performance with an emphasis in acting and directing and minoring in musical theatre and communications.
From the outset, his talents made a strong impression. He was cast as the mute in a stage presentation of The Fantasticks and his performance garnered him a nomination to compete for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF). That was the first in a series of nominations he would receive for the acting scholarship. During his senior year, he was one of ten finalists.
His subsequent roles included a starring role in Footloose and playing George in The Drowsy Chaperone—a CUI production in which Barnes was also the assistant choreographer working with one of his CUI mentors, choreography and dance instructor Tyson Garner.
During his senior year at CUI, Barnes taught musical theatre dance and tap at Garner's dance studio and the Houston School of Music, appeared in CUI productions of Proof and Reckless, and choreographed and played in the four-person musical Songs for a New World.
In addition to his theatre performances at CUI, he also participated in two choirs, Concordia’s drama ministry and CUI’s dance company, in addition to taking on various student leadership roles. Wesley also took on-campus jobs to help with tuition.
During his time at Concordia, Wesley found several mentors to help him along the way. Theatre professors Tony Vezner and Lori Siekmann were like a mom and dad to him, and Biology professor Rod Soper took the time to help him grow in his biology class. His supervisor for one of his on-campus jobs, Kamaura Taylor, also became a mentor.
There's no limit to the stories that we can tell. We get to actually be a part of the narrative. It's expression; it's life. We get to hold a mirror up to society and comment on it. It's a beautiful thing.
Looking back on his CUI journey, Barnes is thankful for his experiences.
"Concordia gave me the confidence I always knew I was missing," he said. "... the potential they saw in me is the biggest blessing that I could have asked for. They taught me that I have all the skills necessary to be a professional actor, and that the only thing standing in my way was me. "
A bright future
In addition to his performances around the country and internationally, Barnes is also a house manager at St. Luke's Off Broadway Theatre and Second Stage Theatre, and a member of the 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company in New York. Currently, Barnes is choreographing the movement for an upcoming show, String of Pearls, with the 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company, whose cast includes former Concordia students Lauren Winnenberg '14 and Alexandra Dominguez '15.
As he looks to the future, he hopes to return to his neighborhood one day and establish a performing arts annex for kids.
"...I was able to find an outlet in the arts and that made a huge impact on my life. I just want to give them what was given to me..."
As for performing, he hopes to continue his journey, whether it be on Broadway, off-Broadway, tours, TV or film. He would also like to teach.
"I feel as actors ... we have the ability to tell stories that have the potential to change people's lives ... to make them feel, think, learn, question, change their minds," he said. "... There's no limit to the stories that we can tell. We get to actually be a part of the narrative. It's expression; it's life. We get to hold a mirror up to society and comment on it. It's a beautiful thing."