A Different Set of Eyes

By: 

Grace Webb

MSU's Matt Stairs has never let a pesky thing like legal blindness keep him from the stage.

 

Matthew Stairs has played a remarkably diverse cast of characters throughout his time in show business: an unflappably cheerful chimney sweep in Mary Poppins, an insufferable braggart in Beauty and the Beast, a morbid romantic in Addams Family and more.

The 23-year-old MSU graduate has racked up a resume that would make any theater buff jealous—and he’s managed to do it without even seeing the stage he’s standing on.

Stairs is considered legally blind and doesn’t have any central vision. He describes his eyesight like looking through a “windshield with wipers that don’t work.” For Stairs, the problem with his eyesight became obvious around the age of 12, when he began having difficulty reading. At first, his doctor wasn’t able to figure out why he was affected. It took a trip to a specialist for the final diagnosis: Stargardt Disease. It’s a genetic disorder that affects only 25,000 people in the United States, and Stairs and his brother are two such cases.

But Stairs has never let his vision slow him down as he’s pushed towards his goals. Instead, he relies on his peripheral vision, both for studying and for acting. The most he asks for is scripts in PDF format and extra run-throughs for choreography.

“I have yet to figure out how I do it,” he said. “I was blessed with a natural ability and sense of where I am on that stage.”

The only thing that really caused him trouble was figuring out how to talk to people—especially costars. Since he can’t see directly in front of him, he developed a habit of looking at people out of the corner of his eye. This helped him see people, but it made some people nervous since he wouldn’t look them in the eye like they were used to.

“I’ve had to train myself to look people ‘in the eye,’” Stairs explained. “I’ve learned to look at somebody right through the huge blind spot in my vision. When I’m on stage and I’m interacting with people, I don’t see their faces. I can’t allow my habits to affect the story. I decided a long time ago that instead of sacrificing that [performance experience] for the sake of being able to see the person, I was going to forward the fiction.”

That love of performing—of sharing the story—has been a vital part of Stairs’ life since he was kid. Growing up in Casper, Wyoming, he got involved with music at age three, performing in churches within his community. He didn’t discover a passion for acting, though, until high school—when his theater teacher talked him into auditioning for the fall play, The Good Doctor. After earning a spot in the cast, he followed up with his first musical, Li’l Abner, that spring.  But it wasn’t until his senior year, when he landed the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, that he decided he wanted to make acting his life work.

“I found the passion for acting in that show that I did not know existed before,” he said.

Stairs pursued his love for acting at Casper College, the No. 1 theater school in Wyoming, earning his associate’s degree in 2014. After graduating, he started auditioning for four-year university programs, becoming most interested in the University of Michigan. When Michigan refused to accept him as a transfer student, however, he suddenly had to find a last-minute second choice. A professor suggested MSU-Mankato, and Stairs decided to go for it.

“I didn’t know almost anything about the program,” he said with a rueful smile. “You could say I was going in blind.”

But Stairs was quick to add that he was happily surprised by MSU’s drama program.

 “The school gives you a lot of different techniques and options to use to find your character and propel the story forward,” Stairs said. “You learn your craft in the class and you learn how to be an artist on the stage.”

Paul Hustoles, chair of MSU’s Department of Theater, said he was impressed the first time he met Stairs, and his admiration only grew as he continued to teach Stairs in the classroom and direct him onstage.

“I’ll never forget the first time I heard him sing, when he applied for the BFA,” Hustoles said. “It was a jaw dropping experience. Right from the get-go, here was a force of nature to be reckoned with.”

But Hustoles said what stood out even more than Stairs’ raw talent was his desire to learn and his amazing character.

“He’s just the kindest, most wonderful person you can imagine,” Hustoles said. “When I first met him, I thought, ‘There’s not a lot I can teach this person.’ But he was so hungry to learn that his learning curve was astonishing. He’s got the talent, he’s got the intellect. He’s going to make it. Matt is one of the crème de la crème. I’m just hoping that he remembers us when he gets his Tony award, because it’s going to happen.”

During his very first semester at the university, Stairs managed to snag a major role in their fall musical, Beauty in the Beast, as the swaggering villain Gaston. For his brilliant performance, he was nominated for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Irene Ryan Scholarship Competition, which brings together drama students from across the country to compete for scholarships. Stairs made it to the semi-finals that year, and was nominated again for his role of John Wilkes Booth in Assassins months later.

Throughout his time at MSU, he also played Gomez Addams in The Addams Family, Thomas Andrews in Titanic and Bert the Chimneysweep in Mary Poppins, which he said was his favorite role—despite the fact that he had to dance upside down on the ceiling without being able to see it under his feet.

“When MSU announced that they were doing Mary Poppins [in their four-year plan] my first year I was there, I immediately started doing everything in my power to be ready for those auditions,” he said. “Dick Van Dyke was one of my favorites as a kid, and I watched the movie religiously growing up. When I saw my name on that list, I nearly passed out.”

Stairs graduated with his BFA in Musical Theater in 2016, finishing summa cum laude and earning the university’s Troy Wilson Performing Arts Award. He missed becoming his class’s valedictorian by one-tenth of a point, but, even more impressively, he managed to complete the school’s BFA program in only two years—the first time any theater student finished in so short a time.

“He told me he wanted to graduate in two years,” Hustoles said. “No one had ever done that—it’s almost impossible. You’d have to be brilliant. It turns out he’s as brilliant a student as an actor. He aced all my classes. I pride myself on flunking everyone, but I couldn’t flunk him.”

Immediately after graduating, Stairs was offered a six-month contract with Blue Bay Musicals out of Sugar Creek, Ohio. Once that work is done, he already has another contract lined up in Louisville, Kentucky for the holiday season. He said his goal is to someday perform on Broadway.

No matter where he ends up, he said he could never have been so successful without the support of his family and professors.

“They’ve all really just believed in me and inspired me,” Stairs explained. “It’s things like that that have really helped me keep going, even when things did get difficult. I would not be where I am without them.”