Battle Creek

KCC alum Lance Barber, the dad on 'Young Sheldon', will appear during upcoming performing arts gala

Lance Barber takes pride in being able to say that his time at Kellogg Community College set the stage for a successful career as a professional actor.

Barber, a 1994 graduate of KCC’s Theatre Arts program, currently stars as George Cooper Sr., the father of the title character in the CBS sitcom “Young Sheldon”. He will be among a lineup of guest artists and speakers appearing virtually during the college’s “A Celebration of Performing Arts at KCC: A Virtual Gala,” which will stream live from 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, on the college’s YouTube channel here

Like everyone else appearing and performing during the Gala, he had planned to be here in person, but the ongoing spread of the COVID-19 virus turned the planned live and in-person event into a virtual gathering.

He says his remarks will focus on “somebody who took advantage of what KCC has to offer, which was the beginning of opportunities for me that opened doors for me.”

Barber was raised by a single mother, widowed after his father, a Military Police officer with the U.S. Army, died while serving in Korea when Barber was one year old. The actor says he was fortunate to be the first recipient of the college’s Alfred J. Brown (Al Brown) Memorial Scholarship Fund, a permanently endowed scholarship awarded to sophomore theater students at KCC, says Teresa Durham, Executive Director of the KCC Foundation.
“In most recent years, the fund has also helped to support the college’s Encore Theatre Company (a registered student organization for theater enthusiasts).  Al (Brown) was a local celebrity and dedicated 20 years of performing and involvement in various local theater productions,” Durham says. “He was the winner of three ABBie Awards, active in the Battle Creek Civic Theatre and Leila Follies.”
Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Barber says, “It’s good to know that a community college is supporting the arts and giving people opportunities whether it be with an acting career or something else. I’m happy to support any institution creating opportunities, especially in a small town where I felt like they were limited.”

His first exposure to the possibilities acting offered came about when he attended a performance of “Grease” at the Barn Theatre with his mother. Barber was 7-years-old and had seen the movie version and purchased the soundtrack, his first-ever album purchase. He says the play differed from the movie but he was still “blown away by the experience of seeing people performing live and on a stage.”

A self-described introvert from a young age, Barber says he lacked confidence at the time to get involved with youth theater groups in Battle Creek. It wouldn’t be until his freshman year at Pennfield High School that his interest in acting would become a serious pursuit.

Lance Barber plays the dad, George Cooper Sr., on "Young Sheldon." His English teacher, Amy Rosa, encouraged him to join the school’s Drama Club, which she led. The school was doing a production of “Rebel Without a Cause” and Barber and a friend of his talked about auditioning, but only if they were both going to do it.

“We were terrified and secretly dreamed of being a part of it,” Barber says.

They both secured small roles and for Barber this initial foray into performing live gave him confidence and an immediate community of people who shared his passion for acting.

“I found attention and true enjoyment in the actual process of rehearsal and performing and it was exhilarating,” he says. “I gained some false confidence and the exhilaration of having that confidence at that time ramped out some obnoxiousness and attention I sought in my daily life.

“Actors who are extroverts need to be up on a stage and need attention and then there are those who are the introverts and that need for attention is not part of their day-to-day personality. I fell into that introvert category. As a child, I was quiet and didn’t have friends outside of my family.”

He credits Rosa, with giving him the encouragement he needed to try acting through the Drama Club and eventually becoming the quintessential drama club kid.

“She was supportive and suggested I get involved with this and continued to support and validate my pursuits through high school,” says Barber, who still considers himself an introvert due in part to the death of his father, a man he knows only through descriptions provided by family members and friends.

That loss had a significant impact on the way his personality developed and how he would grow into adulthood. There were elements of shyness, discomfort, and fear that sowed the seeds for growth and resilience under the watchful eye of his family, particularly his mother and female relatives, who he says “doted” on him.

“In spite of the tragedy, the result was a lot of wonderful nurturing that was maybe to a fault,” Barber says.

He was not surprised when his mother and his extended family were in total support of his plan to become an actor.

The stage was set in Battle Creek

Barber was first exposed to KCC’s theater program when he volunteered to do backstage work for a production of “42nd Street” at the college’s Binda Performing Arts Center. Still in high school at the time, he got a taste of what the theater culture and theater community in Battle Creek was all about.

“This is where I was bitten by the bug of theater culture and learned how much KCC supported that culture. It certainly wasn’t from anywhere else. That was my first experience of it locally and, obviously, it’s something that attracted and inspired me to make a career out of it. There was a nurturing of that community,” he says.

That early backstage experience presented him with opportunities to see how professional theater operates. It also prepared him for the work he would be required to do to earn tech credits he would need to earn his degree from the college. He served as the stage manager for a production of the “Sound of Music” and ran lights for a production of “Annie.”

“This gave me insight into the technical and business workings and the backstage magic that happens to make the show go on,” Barber says.

On stage, he would be cast in roles including a very unattractive woman in a production of “The Miss Firecracker Contest” and the role of Oscar Madison in a production of “The Odd Couple,” which required his 20-year-old self to play a 40-year-old man. It was his role as Pontius Pilate in a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” that he considers his most memorable and challenging.

That role required him to sing, something that up to that point had “terrified” him. He took singing lessons which gave him the “guts” to audition for the role that required what he describes as “talk-singing.”

“It was a juicy and delicious role and one that I loved. It was a dream come true to do that show with friends. It was so memorable and shaping,” Barber says.

Barber is one of many students to experience the growth that comes with being part of the theater program. KCC Theatre professor Brad Poer said KCC Theatre has played “a constantly evolving role in expressing the hopes, values, and dreams of our institution, our community, and our world.”

“Dozens of directors, technicians and instructors have passed the baton to each other over the years, but it’s been the hundreds of cast and crew members and thousands of audience members that have gotten the greatest reward from our work onstage,” says Poer in a press release about the Gala.

“Through six decades of plays, musicals, operas, and smaller performances and projects, it has always been the creative force of collaboration between all sorts of personalities and experience levels working and playing together through which KCC Theatre has told powerful, engaging stories about what it means to be human, as we hone leadership and problem-solving skills among our casts and crews in the process.”

After graduating, Barber became an apprentice at the Barn Theatre where he met students in the theater program at Western Michigan University. His plan was to further his education and earn a Bachelor’s degree at WMU.

Those plans took a secondary role after he met members of Top Hat Productions, a troupe of actors who traveled around the country in a van to do improvisational murder mysteries and dinner. In between semesters at KCC, he was traveling throughout the East Coast and Midwest to perform on college campuses.

“That inspired my enjoyment of improv which is something I hadn’t done before,” he says.

In 1994 he moved to Chicago to “pursue the Chicago theater scene.” He was introduced by a fellow KCC alumnus to Second City in Chicago, which has launched the comedic acting careers of actors like Tina Fey and Bill Murray. Barber enrolled in acting classes there after seeing a performance of “Pinata Full of Bees.”

He immersed himself in the improv and comedy sketch world and says having his experience with Second City on his resume provided plenty of opportunities for auditions.

Hitting the Big Time in L.A.

Barber considers his most significant role to be a character named Paulie G. in “The Comeback”, a comedy-drama series that aired on HBO for two seasons beginning in 2005. The show was about an ex-A-list celebrity, Valerie Cherish, played by Lisa Kudrow (best-known for her role as Phoebe in “Friends.”) Valerie attempts to rekindle the flame of her once prominent acting career with nothing but a camera crew and some determination. 

The backstory of Paulie G. is that he co-created “Room and Bored” alongside the character of Tom Peterman, where the pair first met Valerie. Paulie G. loves a low-brow style of humor and was responsible for early changes to Valerie’s character Aunt Sassy -- largely because he didn’t like Valerie much. He never wanted to cast Valerie in the role. Paulie G. regularly antagonized Valerie as she tried to control the “Room and Bored” set, and the power struggle between the two eventually came to a dramatic crescendo. Now, Paulie G. encounters Valerie again while working on an HBO show he created, “Seeing Red,” about a monstrous, aging sitcom star who drives a showrunner to madness.

Barber describes Paulie G. as “kind of a villain and someone you like to hate. I guess I played creepy well enough because some of the roles that followed for me were similar in character.”

The opportunity to break free from these creep/villain characters came in 2017 when he was cast as the father in “Young Sheldon.” In real life, Barber is happily married and the father of two children and he says this gives him the ability to relate to the character he plays in the show.

“This job I have now is quite something for a million reasons artistically and personally and financially. It’s kind of a jackpot job in a bunch of different ways,” he says. “It’s perfect for this time of my life. This is a role that is so different from those things I had done before. He’s a softer and more likable character. I get to pay homage to the father figures in my life.”

He continues to audition for other roles as terms of his contract with “Young Sheldon” allow and says he feels grateful to have been able to have taped the show’s upcoming season which was shortened to 18 from 22 episodes because of COVID.

“It was a thrill to be able to work. We employ over 200 people who rely on this job,” Barber says. “Whatever protocols that were in place for mitigation worked. It’s been a miserable year for everybody and I feel super-privileged to be able to have pulled this off.”

His gratitude for what he’s been able to achieve includes a nod to Battle Creek and its arts community as well as the people he met along the way who inspired him.

“There are no people like show people and it’s funny to look back because I have been immersed in a world of entertainment and performers at different levels in high school, at KCC, in Chicago, and L.A. with a community of people who are interested in these things. They’re not only interested in the arts, but in all perspectives that come with the arts. I’ve met some real characters who inspired me, people who brought light and fun into the world and made it a goal of theirs to do that and I was inspired by that. It’s hard not to be inspired by talented people who are themselves inspired by the arts.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.