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Imaginig Madoff lighting design Jody Christopherson

Imagining Madoff, Part Two: Lighting Design

Few recent cases of financial crime captured the public’s imagination as much as the swindling of Bernie Madoff. Deb Margolin’s Imagining Madoff revisits the monumental case through the eyes of Madoff himself; Galkin, a Jewish Holocaust survivor; and Madoff’s secretary. Originally written for Theater J in Washington, DC, the somewhat controversial play had its New York premiere this past spring at 59E59. Directed by Jerry Heymann, the production in New York relied heavily on the designers to transform a tiny theater into a space that could hold a play dealing with giant ideas. The play demands three distinct spaces (in three separate time periods) for the three characters to occupy simultaneously: Madoff’s cell, Galkin’s study, and the space for the unnamed secretary’s testimony in front of the Securities and Exchange Commission. But on the tiny stage at 59E59 that would prove to be an incredible challenge.

Read about Dara Wishingrad's set design.

Lighting designer Michael O’Connor was brought on board to design Imagining Madoff through his long relationship as a resident artist of New Light Theater Project who produced the NY production. His challenge, as the lighting designer was to “find a way to shift focus from one area to the next without becoming visually stressful to the audience. We spent most of our tech rehearsals going back over the transitions to really nail down the timing and make them seamless. There were no set shifts and very few sound cues so I was allowed to take the time to help the audience see and hear the play as it was written without using their energy to find the action.”

In addition to the movement between spaces, O’Connor also aimed to separate the three spaces that Wishingrad had created. “It was my job to make sure the lighting conveyed the personality of each space while not having light spill into the other areas,” he says. “Theater C at 59E59 is really small. I think the stage was only about 20' wide by 10' deep so you can imagine how even the smallest amount of light can intrude on the wrong playing space. Luckily, the blocking also had to stay contained. Jerry’s staging allowed me to keep the cold isolation of Madoff’s cell separate from the warmth of Galkin’s study.”

Jody ChristophersonImaginig Madoff lighting design

He cites his close collaboration with Wishingrad as the source of the production’s successful design. “I think the discussions between Dara and myself really helped shaped the design,” O’Connor states. “We both knew early on what the challenges would be and had several in depth discussions on how to work together to solve them.”

O’Connor was prepared for the physical challenges of the space, but each project presents its own unique twists. “Not only do you have to deal with the compact playing areas but the grid is also relatively high so there are almost no positions for a low source light. This pushed us to find other ways to carve out each location. We went with a lot of diagonal back lights to separate the areas and keep each character in a distinct quality of light.” The theater also has a truly small inventory of fewer than 30 conventional lighting fixtures: “Once I knew the playing areas, I spent a lot of time trying to get as many uses out of each and every light he hung,” he explains. “I added four ETC ColorSource PARs, and these became a work horse. These allowed me to tone the scene while freeing up the conventional fixtures to help isolate the characters as well as make each area feel unique.”

Jody ChristophersonImaginig Madoff lighting design

In retrospect, O’Connor wishes he could have added more texture to the show. “The small inventory meant that I only snuck in a few templates to one area,” he comments. “It was important to give Galkin’s warmth a feeling of memory so a dappled quality to the back light was perfect. If I had to do it again, I would have pushed for a few more lighting fixtures to help get a subtle shattered feeling in Madoff’s cell.”

Wishingrad and O’Connor approached the challenges of the small space and this complex play with the full support of Heymann: “Jerry's main directive at the close of our initial design conversations was ‘you know best what will work, just make it a work of art.’ Between my fellow designers and myself, I feel that we did just that.”

Click on the lighting plot below to enlarge to PDF.

lighting plot to Imaging Madoff

Additional Team

Associate Set Designer: Brett Calvo

Costume Designer: Kara Branch

Sound Designer: Andy Evan Cohen

Propmaster: Leila Ben Abdallah

Production Manager: Lauren Parrish

Builder: TJ Craftsman

Electrician: Maryam Sweirki

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