When Matthew Stairs steps onto a stage, all eyes are immediately drawn to him. He has a natural stage presence that quickly catches people’s attention. Whether he’s playing a rascally villain or a loveable chimney sweep, when he starts to sing, you feel like he’s looking right at you.
The surprising truth, however, is that Stairs isn’t looking anywhere—because he’s legally blind. Born with a genetic eye disorder called Stargardt Disease, Stairs doesn’t have any central vision. He describes his eyesight like looking through “a windshield with wipers that don’t work.” Instead, he relies on his peripheral vision, both for
studying and for acting.
“I have yet to figure out how I do it,” he says. “I was blessed with a natural ability and sense of where I am on that stage.”
Stairs grew up in Casper, Wyo., and has been involved in music and theater since childhood. He studied theater at Casper College before transferring to Minnesota State University, Mankato, a last-minute decision that he says has helped him enormously as he has grown in his craft.
“The school gives you a lot of different techniques and options to use to find your character and propel the story forward,” Stairs says. “You learn your craft in the class, and you learn how to be an artist on the stage.”
During his time at Minnesota State Mankato, Stairs played Gaston in Beauty and the Beast (snagging the role in his very first semester), John Wilkes Booth in Assassins, Gomez Addams in The Addams Family and Bert the Chimneysweep in Mary Poppins—his favorite role.
Stairs graduated with his BFA in Musical Theater in 2016, completing the program in only two years—the first time any theater student finished in so short a time. Immediately after graduating, he was offered a six-month contract with Blue Bay Musicals out of Sugar Creek, Ohio. His goal, he says, is to perform on Broadway someday. And when he does, you can be sure that all eyes will be on him—even if he can’t see them himself. —Grace Webb