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Minnesota State University, Mankato
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Legally Blind Actor Excels at Minnesota State Mankato

Matt Stairs plays the character Jules in "Boom," presented March 25-28 in Andreas Theatre.

2015-04-17
Robb Murray, Mankato Free Press, 3-25-2015

Matt Stairs (at right in photo) is shown in "Boom," presented this week at Minnesota State Mankato. (Photo by Mike Lagerquist.)

The funny thing is, he didn't even realize it was happening. As his retinas deteriorated and his vision began devolving into what eventually would become legal blindness, Matt Stairs just kept reading his Harry Potter, kept his nose in those bound collections of Garfield comic strips.

And when his nose was, literally, a little too far into that copy of “Sorcerer's Stone,” and mom and dad got worried, they sought help and, eventually, got a grim diagnosis: a rare vision impairment known as Stargardt's disease. Essentially it makes it impossible for Matt to see what's in front of him. His vision is 20/200; his central vision – the things right in front of him – is gone.

Devastating, right? Well … Maybe not.

It would have been really hard to call it devastating if you'd been in the audience last fall for Minnesota State University, Mankato's production of “Beauty and the Beast.” Stairs was there, on stage, and not as a dancing tea cup but as Gaston, one of the key characters in the play, a role you give to an actor with skills, an actor who can take a role written to be disliked and turn it into a character to be loathed.

Stairs delivered. Blind eyes and all. He delivered. And no one — no one — would have known that when he was looking into Belle's eyes trying to convince her to marry him, he didn't see her blue eyes at all. He saw nothing but … well, nothing. It was acting. Which is all he wants to do. And he's not about to let a little visual impairment get in his way.

“I've realized this could be my way of inspiring people,” Stairs said.

The next chapter in his life plays out this week. He'll take the stage in the Minnesota State Mankato production of “Boom,” a play that presents even more new challenges for Stairs.

He plays the role of Jules, a marine biology grad student who tries to woo Jo, a journalism student. They meet in Jules' underground lab/apartment after Jo replies to a personal ad promising “sex to change the course of the world.” His research suggests to him the end of the world is nigh. A third character emerges, one who doesn't interact with Jules and Jo. We'll leave the rest for you to discover in Minnesota State Mankato 's Andreas Theatre.

Misdiagnosis

When his parents first spotted their son's face much to close to the book he was reading, they tried to get him help. They took him to the eye doctor to get his eyes checked. The diagnosis?

“They essentially thought I was faking it for attention,” he said, laughing.

When the attention-seeking didn't go away, they sought the help of a specialist. And that's when they learned Stairs had Stargardt's. Once the diagnosis was confirmed, his vision deteriorated rapidly. Today it's at a solid 20/200. Legally, Stairs is blind.

Still, he enrolled at Casper College. He'd participated in theater at his high school and found that to be his calling, so he continued that pursuit in college. And when it came time to transfer, he sought the advice of his theater instructors.

One of them knew a guy in Minnesota who was the head of the theater department at a mid-sized state university. That was Paul Hustoles, head of Minnesota State Mankato 's Department of Theatre and Dance. Stairs said he'd been considering the University of Michigan and the University of Cincinnati. But there was something about that school in Mankato that felt right. He chose Mankato and is very glad he did.

“This was the best place to go,” he said. “It's very rigorous and very rewarding at the same time.”

After performing in “Beauty and the Beast,” he transitioned into another major role. In the play “Assassins,” a quirky, musical look at the personalities behind assassination attempts on U.S. presidents, he played the famous John Wilkes Booth, the man who killed Abraham Lincoln.

Now, he's performing in “Boom,” which for him is a dramatic departure from everything he's done before. Instead of a cast with dozens, such as “Beauty and the Beast,” there are only three.

“I've never done this small of a show,” he said. “There's more dialogue to memorize and you have to carry the scene. And I've never done that before. It's a little daunting.”

Stairs, as he's grown as an actor, has developed unique ways of doing things other actors may take for granted. For instance, when two random actors are talking back and forth, one will give visual cues that make it easier for the other pick up on and, hence, let the audience know that such cues are being picked up on. Even if that exchange can be largely subconscious for the audience, it's not, and cannot be, for the actors.

But because he can't see it, Stairs needs his other senses — primarily hearing — to make up for it.

“I have to listen to what they're doing, the way they say things,” he said

The “struggle”

Stairs says he's grown a lot this year, so much so that he's no longer concerned about his future.

“This place is making me grow and mature as an actor in a way I never thought was possible,” he said.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press or online HERE. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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