Although Barba was born in Brindisi, he grew up in Gallipoli in the Province of Lecce, where his family came from. His family’s socio-economic situation changed significantly when his father, a military officer, was wounded in the Second World War and died soon after.
Upon completing high school at the Nunziatella military academy of Naples in 1954, he abandoned the idea of following his father into the military. Instead, in 1954, he emigrated to Norway to work as a welder and a sailor. He also took a degree in French, Norwegian literature, and history of religion at Oslo University. In 1961 he went to Warsaw in Poland to study theatre direction at the State Theatre School, but left one year later to join Jerzy Grotowski, who at that time was the leader of Teatr 13 Rzedow in Opole. Barba stayed with Grotowski for three years.
In 1963 he traveled to India where he had his first encounter with Kathakali, a theatre form which had received little attention in the West up to that time. Barba wrote an essay on Kathakali which was published in Italy, France, the USA and Denmark. His first book, Grotowski in search of a Lost Theatre, was published in Italy and Hungary in 1965.
When Barba returned to Oslo in 1964, he wanted to become a professional theatre director, but as he was a foreigner, he was not welcome in the profession. In this period he became a close friend to the Norwegian author and rebel Jens Bjørneboe with whom he wanted to start the theatre group. Together, they gathered a group of young people who had not passed their admission test to Oslo’s State Theatre School, and created the Odin Teatret on 1 October 1964. The group trained and rehearsed in an air raid shelter. Their first production, Ornitofilene, by the Norwegian author Jens Bjørneboe, was performed in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. They were subsequently invited by the Danish municipality of Holstebro, a small town in the Northwest, to create a theatre laboratory there. They were offered an old farm and a small sum of money to set them on their feet. Since then Barba and his colleagues have made Holstebro the base for the Odin Teatret.
During the past forty two years Eugenio Barba has directed 65 productions with Odin Teatret and the Theatrum Mundi Ensemble, some of which have required up to two years of preparation. Among the best known are Ferai (1969), Min Fars Hus (My Father’s House) (1972), Brecht’s Ashes (1980), The Gospel According to Oxyrhincus (1985), Talabot (1988), Itsi Bitsi (1991), Kaosmos (1993) and Mythos (1998). Some of the more recent productions are Salt (2002), Great Cities under the Moon (2003), Andersen's Dream (2005), Ur-Hamlet (2006) and Don Giovanni all'Inferno (2006) in collaboration with Ensemble Midtvest.
Since 1974, Eugenio Barba and Odin Teatret have devised their own way of being present in a social context through the practice of theatre "barter", an exchange through performance with a community.
In 1979 Eugenio Barba founded the International School of Theatre Anthropology (ISTA). He is on the advisory boards of scholarly journals such as The Drama Review, Performance Research, New Theatre Quarterly, Teatro e Storia and Teatrología. Among his most recent publications, translated into several different languages, are The Paper Canoe (Routledge), Theatre: Solitude, Craft, Revolt (Black Mountain Press), Land of Ashes and Diamonds. My Apprenticeship in Poland, followed by 26 letters from Jerzy Grotowski to Eugenio Barba (Black Mountain Press) and, in collaboration with Nicola Savarese, The Secret Art of the Performer and the revised an updated version: A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology (Centre for Performance Research/ Routledge).
Eugenio Barba has been awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Århus, Ayacucho, Bologna, Havana, Warsaw, University of Plymouth (UK) and the "Reconnaissance de Mérite scientifique" from the Université de Montréal.
He is also a recipient of the Danish Academy Award, Mexican Theatre Critics' prize, Diego Fabbri prize, Pirandello International prize, the Sonning Prize of the University of Copenhagen and the Academy of Performing Arts (Hong Kong).
Eugenio Barba was brother to the late Ernesto Barba, a prominent Italian hotelier.