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Curiocity: Q&A With ‘Tribes’ Actor Stephen Schnetzer

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Sara Boyd Sara Pelissero
Sara Pelissero joined the WCCO web team in August of 2009. You can...
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It’s been called one of the best new plays of the year. And so far, it seems Twin Cities audiences agree.

Tribes, now playing at the Guthrie Theater, is the story of a young man born deaf who lives with a family that doesn’t understand his language.

The young man, Billy, is left to read lips in order to be included in conversations that can range from dysfunctional to oppressive inside his own home.

His shining glimmer of hope comes in the form of a chance meeting with a young woman with deaf parents who opens him up to the incredible community he’s been missing.

Billy’s father, played by former soap opera star Stephen Schnetzer, is not exactly the understanding, compassionate parent you’d hope for.

“If you don’t dislike my character, then you’re not going to really like the kids in the family,” he said. “I’m taking the fall for the show.”

Schnetzer, who audiences may remember best as Cass Winthrop from “Another World,” “As The World Turns” and “Guiding Light,” said after starting his acting career with live theater, he was excited to return to his roots — especially at the highly prestigious Guthrie Theater.

Here’s our Q&A …

——-

This is your first time performing at the Guthrie. How has the experience been?
It’s great. I can’t imagine a facility that supports the creative process more. Everything is dedicated towards putting on a wonderful production from the prop shop to the costume shop to the actual shop where the sets are built. The space is luxurious and the actors are also. Every aspect is really respected. It’s a thrill to be there, really.

And it’s also your first time in our city. How are you enjoying Minneapolis?
It is, yeah. Great town. It’s very appealing. I see why people rave about it. I’ve always been told it’s really nice up here.

Obviously, our viewers and readers will remember you from your Soap Opera days. I’ve always wanted to know, what is it like being a soap star, with so many shows to shoot and a somewhat grueling schedule?
It’s a different animal. It’s not for everybody. I’ve seen a lot of really good actors not be able to handle the pace of it. But I was very fortunate to work with a bunch of really great people on the different shows that I did, especially “Another World” that I did for 17 years. It allowed me to stay in one geographical area and raise a family and feel that I could support them, so it was a great job. But yeah, it was grueling. One episode a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, no reruns with anywhere from … and of course, I didn’t work every day but my character was pretty involved in story lines. So I averaged about two and a half to three days a week over the 17 years there and that’s a pretty heavy schedule. Some scripts were three pages, one script was 82 pages — I was in every scene, I was on every page and had to memorize all of that.

And in a short amount of time, I presume.
Yeah, just a few days. I like to tell people I’m a genius but I don’t think they believe me.

(credit: T Charles Erickson)

(credit: T Charles Erickson)

So what made you want to do live theater again?
I started in live theater. The first eight years of my career were regional repertory theater, Shakespeare and everything that the Guthrie does. I started doing Shakespeare in Central Park, the public theater in New York, went out to ACT, which is another one of the country’s fine repertory companies, regional companies, and when I went out there, I would hear about the Guthrie — and this was a long time ago. Ever since I started hearing about the Guthrie and what they were doing here, I wanted to come. The opportunity never quite presented itself until now.

And what a great opportunity with this play. Could you tell us a little about your character Christopher?
He’s what everybody rebels against, in a way. He’s a really harsh, harsh father. He’s very intellectually demanding and I would say he may even be intellectually abusive. He’s really challenging to his children. It’s a frustrating time for the family because the kids have varying degrees of issues, as all kids do. They’re all in their mid-20s and they’ve all moved back in. Just when you think you’re going to have to go through the empty nest syndrome, it’s a damn full nest syndrome again. It’s not a perfect situation but there’s a lot of love in this family and hopefully that comes through.

On our noon show, you said this is more than a play, it’s almost a religious experience.
It is because there’s a whole segment of our population, that being the deaf community, and it’s a creative, vibrant, magnificent, fun-loving community that tends to be rather isolated for obvious reasons. This is a way to enter their world, as an actor it was a way for me to enter that world and feel more comfortable working with that minority and put myself in their shoes a little, walk a mile in them. It’s a great experience in that way, it really is.

Did it change your perspective on that community?
I wouldn’t say it changed my perspective, it just gave me a lot more insight into that community. In terms of being aware of all the different minorities that surround us. It’s a very rich experience to work on as an actor or any of the aspects of the play. And to view it as an audience member. The audiences are just, they come aboard almost immediately. You should see the responses during the show. The laughter is huge and then at the end, over the weekend, it was dead silent. They just couldn’t move and then the standing ovation came. It’s powerful.

What is that like for you, to not only believe so much in a script but to see audiences respond to it as well?
It makes it a peak experience. It makes it a handful of things you do in your career, where it all comes together, including the impact to the people you’re doing it for — the audience.

Tribes is playing through Nov. 10 at the Guthrie Theater. For more information or tickets, head to the Guthrie Theater’s website.

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