Best Acting Debut (2002)

Joey Steakley, Barbette, Kitchen Dog Theater

Talk about commitment to one's art. For the title role in Barbette, a new biographical play by Bill Lengfelder and David Goodwin performed at Kitchen Dog Theater in June, Joey Steakley spent nearly a year learning the art of the trapeze and perfecting the moves of the "Spanish web," a balletic circus act on a rope 30 feet in the air. His performance as the Texas-born transvestite circus star involved not just perfecting aerial stunts but delicately depicting the young "Barbette" (real name Vander Clyde) as a dreamy farm boy in Round Rock, Texas, and his subsequent journey to musical hall stardom in drag and his stormy affair with a great poet in Paris in the 1920s. Steakley's fine, subtle acting in the physically demanding role--he did that rope ballet wearing little more than satin shorts, pasties and a blond wig--made the stuntwork even more breathtaking and affecting. For a young actor (he earned his degree in drama in May), fearlessness is as important as talent. Steakley has more of both than most actors of any age.