In Arts & Entertainment

Matt Daniels (kneeling) plays Snoopy in First Stage's "A Charlie Brown Christmas." (PHOTO: Paul Ruffolo Photography)

A fetching conversation with Matt Daniels, the man behind First Stage's Snoopy

It isn't often that someone gets the opportunity to interview one of their idols. And while I'm unfortunately still waiting for calls from Julie Andrews, Tom Hanks and Neil Diamond, I was lucky enough to talk to someone who made a big impression on me in my childhood. I'm talking about none other than the man (OK, fine, dog), the myth and the legend himself: Snoopy.

In all honestly, what is there not to love about Snoopy? At least that's what I always thought as a kid. He was charming, a little bit sassy, adventurous and, above all, adorable – the perfect definition of a loyal companion. I'm sure my love of him is what prompted the incessant questions to my parents of when we could get a dog (spoiler alert, I'm still waiting).

As we rapidly approach the most wonderful time of year, Snoopy is especially not only on my mind but in the minds of several Milwaukee-area families, because he's making the Brew City home for the holidays this year. Specifically, he's setting up shop with the rest of the Peanuts gang at the Marcus Center for First Stage's "A Charlie Brown Christmas," opening Nov. 24.

Before then, I had the opportunity to chat with Matt Daniels, the accomplished actor who will portray my favorite animated canine later this month. Here's a glimpse of our fetching conversation.

OnMilwaukee: Did you read the Peanuts comics or watch the TV movies when you were growing up?

Matt Daniels: I did! I was born in 1975, and I very clearly remember going to see "Bon Voyage Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back)" in the movie theaters when I was a kid.

I also have very fond memories of sitting on the carpet in my grandmother's living room reading collections of all the comic strips, and watching all of the holiday specials when they were on television. So yes, I LOVED Peanuts!

What aspect about playing Snoopy excites you the most when you got cast in this role?

As I was doing research for the role, my love for Snoopy came flooding back to me. I started by going back and reading the old comic strips, and he really struck me as a perfect clown. Before that, I remembered Snoopy for some of the "cool" stuff that he did, but I forgot how completely he can fail at his various schemes. There's just something so great about him going after the "Red Baron" one minute, and then in the next moment, his plane (or his dog house roof) immediately gets shot down and he falls face first into his dog dish! That's what I love about him: When he falls, he falls hard, but he always picks himself up and dusts himself off.

I'm also so excited to be doing a lot of physical comedy as Snoopy. In this show, I speak no lines, obviously, because I play a dog. What I'm playing is all of Snoopy's thought processes, and it's so enjoyable for me to be able to tell his story physically.

There must be a certain pressure to play this role that has had a lot of influence on countless people growing up (like me)?

That's true, but the other part of me is alleviated of the fact that as much as I want to honor and reference the source materials, I constantly have to remind myself that I am a human being. I am flesh and blood; I am NOT an animated character. So it's nice to know there's only so much I can do to live up to my reputation of Snoopy.

It's also so great that the way we are choosing to treat Snoopy in this production is not exactly realistic. You're not going to see him dressed to look like the exact shape and image of Snoopy we all have in our minds. We're taking some liberties with the role, namely in the fact of our approach to the role. Instead, we see Snoopy as more of a European clown or a Cirque du Soleil performer; that's a very physical and mysterious interpretation that is really delightful. It's that concept of him that allows him to comment on the action in the story.

Now, rumor has it this is your second time playing the role of Snoopy at First Stage. How, if at all, will your interpretation of the character change during this run of the show?

Live theater is constantly changing, so while my approach to the role may stay the same as it did two years ago, when I first played Snoopy, I am a different person now than when I was when I first took on this role.

On that note, today is different than yesterday, and I like to lean into that and allow the role to meet me where I am today.

Walk me through the audition process of getting cast in "A Charlie Brown Christmas." I'm secretly wishing the casting directors wanted to see what you looked like while sleeping on a dog house roof ...

(Laughs) No! I feel fortunate to have a great relationship with First Stage, so it was really just a matter of being approached about whether or not I would be interested in working on this show. Not every job is like that!

That's so important with this show, because it's been so meaningful to have great conversations with the creative team about the direction of the character. For example, since our interpretation of Snoopy is of him being more of a clown and less of a walking dog, we were able to have a conversation from the very beginning and have input with Snoopy's costume. We thought, "What if we had a clown nose?" Collaboration like that is key, and having that nose really helps me develop the various routines that I need to do in the show.

How does a human actor appropriately "get into character" when they are playing a dog? Hopefully it doesn't mean eating dog food or going to the vet ...

Well, this is a very physically demanding role, so before every performance, I do an extensive physical warm-up, which includes a lot of yoga. There's – literally – a lot of downward dog and upward dog positions I do!

Also, once I'm in the dressing room, I listen to a lot of 1960s jazz – that really gets me into the world that we are creating.

Why do you think this Christmas story is especially meaningful fans?

The story itself is about getting back to what the holiday means and why it has become so overblown and commercialized. We forget that all of that grew out of something intimate, which is the desire to spend time together to celebrate a certain event. And that event doesn't have to be rooted in a particular religious tradition; there's something about coming together with loved ones and uniting during a dark time. It's a reminder that there's light not only within all of us, but in all of us coming together. That concept can really get lost in the glitz and the chaos that is a commercial Christmas machine.

That's what this story is about and it resonates in all ages. Adults will come to see this performance and be reawakened and brought back to a simpler view of the holidays. And kids will see this performance and be in awe that children just like them are up there telling that story.

What can audiences expect to see in First Stage's production that might be different than the animated version they know and love?

Since the animated version of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is only 30 minutes long, our production has expanded the story to include not just the Christmas special. We've added a couple of famous Snoopy bits from around the Peanuts cannon – you'll get to see the Red Baron and a segment from the Thanksgiving special that really add to the performance.

I have to add that there's such a great sense of nostalgia around this work of art, and there's something really great about not having the barrier of a television screen and animated characters. When it see it live in the theater, where you're breathing the same air as the people acting in front of you, it's such a special experience. Bringing this story on stage really elevates it, and you'll definitely appreciate it in a new way.

First Stage's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" will run at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts beginning Nov. 24 through Dec. 31.

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