To say Madigan Stehly is busy these days might be an understatement even by industry norms. The BFA ’14 School of Dramatic Arts alumnus will serve as a lighting director for the Academy Awards on March 27, the Grammy Awards on April 3 and the NFL Draft April 28-30. Not to mention his usual run of variety shows this time of year.
“A few too many things happening all at once equals a little bit of sanity-testing,” Stehly conceded.
But it’s the type of gauntlet he’s become accustomed to running as a lighting director in the fast-paced world of TV variety series and live events. He’s navigated the currents well, too. Over the past eight years, working primarily with the lighting design firms Full Flood, Inc., and 22 Degrees, Stehly has secured nine Emmy nominations. That includes three for his work on the Grammys. His most recent nom came in 2021 for Friends: The Reunion. And he’s already taken home two Emmy wins — for 2016’s Grease Live and 2019’s Rent: Live.
Stehly’s Oscars gig this Sunday will take him back to the beginning of his professional career — a start that Stehly said was sparked in a sophomore-year lighting class at SDA.
Back in 2012, Tom Ontiveros, then USC’s head of lighting, brought in Bob Barnhart — a principal at both Full Flood and 22 Degrees — to talk to Stehly’s class about TV lighting. Barnhart’s stories about working on So You Think You Can Dance captivated Stehly, who was a huge fan of the show’s artistic lighting.
“I love the live event and variety special world,” he said. “It’s theatre at a massive scale. Massive amounts of moving lights, LEDs, an incredibly fast pace. As a lighting nerd and a theatre nerd, it’s hard to watch something like So You Think You Can Dance or the Grammys and not geek out…Those kinds of live events also require the collaborative nature and problem-solving process that you find in theatre, and that’s my favorite part.”
So, when it came time to pursue an internship the following summer, Stehly’s first email was to Barnhart. The veteran designer responded casually: “We’re working in Hollywood this week, come down and meet the team.” Barnhart’s follow-up email set Stehly up with a credential and parking pass for the Oscars.
“My jaw dropped,” Stehly said.
A few days later, he walked onto the developing set of the Academy Awards, “completely overdressed” in slacks, collared shirt and tie. Barnhart greeted him by saying: “Hold on, we can’t have you looking like the new guy.” After Stehly untucked his shirt and tossed the tie, Barnhart introduced him to some of the biggest names in variety television, along with many of the lighting professionals Stehly has worked with ever since.
“Without a doubt, I credit that internship with my entire career,” Stehly said. “That one connection opened up everything.”
Over the next couple years, Stehly kept earning greater responsibilities — from working on light plots to focusing lights on sets. His big break came in 2015 for Grease Live. Stehly was assigned to work with Al Gurdon, an award-winning lighting designer known for his work on the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics. The British Gurdon couldn’t make a lot of the L.A.-based production meetings, so Stehly often served as his de facto proxy.
“I had to figure out how to communicate what Al would want to do,” he recalled, “and make it seem like I wasn’t one year out of college sitting with all these 20-year veterans who knew way more than I did.”
Stehly took on a larger role as the production proceeded, serving as a lighting director for the first time. The show became one of the first real hits of the modern TV musical genre. And he won his first Emmy in the process.
Not bad for an SDA technical direction alumnus.
“That’s what was so great about going to USC,” Stehly said. “I was a theatre student doing tech direction, not lighting design. But I had a chance to take classes in everything, and eventually I got the design bug.”
He volunteered to do lighting design for SDA shows. And he got an on-campus job as a lighting technician for USC’s performance venues, working a wide variety of public events, including an Elton John concert at Bovard Auditorium.
“To look back now, it’s wild,” Stehly said. “I’m so thankful for the journey. I know how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing.”