Madsen nominated for Helen Hayes Award for set design

The set for "Sex with Strangers" at the Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C., designed by J.D. Madsen
The set for "Sex with Strangers" at the Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C., designed by J.D. Madsen

Madsen nominated for Helen Hayes Award for set design

calendar icon01 Mar 2015    

J.D. Madsen
J.D. Madsen
Lincoln, Neb.--Assistant Professor of Theatre J.D. Madsen has received a nomination for Outstanding Set Design for the play “Sex With Strangers” at the Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C., in the Helen Hayes Awards.

He is one of five designers up for the award in the Hayes Production category, which recognizes productions in the fully professional theatre companies. The awards will be announced on April 6.

One of the country’s most prestigious cultural honors since 1985, the Helen Hayes Awards celebrate outstanding achievement in more than 90 professional theatres throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. They are named for the legendary “First Lady of the American Theatre,” whose career spanned nearly 80 years.

“I was excited and extremely honored to be listed as a peer amongst these other talented designers,” Madsen said of his nomination. “Having worked in the D.C. area for a while, when you hear your name nominated, there is this acknowledgement that you really are playing in the same game. There is a tremendous sense of community and honor that comes with that acknowledgement.”

Madsen said it’s not widely known that Washington, D.C., has more than 80 professional theatres in the area and is the second largest theatre market in the U.S., in terms of ticket sales, to New York City.

“You don’t hear that a lot,” he said. “But it’s just as relevant as New York. Most of the great New York shows started in D.C. It’s great to be part of that community and is a connection. I hope to keep it alive for the students that come to Nebraska for years to come.”

Madsen, who is in his first year of teaching scene design at UNL, came to Nebraska from Washington, D.C. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Maryland and his bachelor’s degree from Weber State University.

“D.C. is my primary market. It’s where my connections and associations are,” Madsen said. “I’m also trying to break into the Midwest markets. These next couple of years are going to be my transition years. Hopefully it all goes well. Nominations help to at least keep your name out there.”

“Sex with Strangers,” by Laura Eason and directed by Aaron Posner, ran Oct. 14-Dec. 7, 2014 at the Signature Theatre’s second stage, the Ark Theatre. In the play, a raging snowstorm traps strangers Olivia, an unsuccessful, yet gifted 39-year-old writer, and Ethan, a tech-addicted and wildly successful young blogger, in a secluded cabin.

“He basically woos and seduces her, and she kind of does the same to him, though,” Madsen said. “It’s not so clear who is seducing whom or for what. It’s more along the lines of what happens when people come into our lives and how we use people to further our own goals. And it has a lot to do with the intersection of private and public. It’s this intelligent discussion wrapped in a romantic comedy veneer.”

Madsen had previously worked as an assistant to a designer than Posner had worked with, Dan Conway. Madsen had worked with Conway on many productions that Conway and Posner had worked on together.

“Over time, Aaron and I talked about looking for opportunities where we might have a chance to work together in a designer-director capacity,” Madsen said. “A year ago, Aaron got the chance to direct the regional premiere of this play. He said he thought it would be a good fit, so he put my name out there, which tends to be the way most designers get their gigs.”

For his set design, he and Posner discussed the intersection of public and private and digital and analog.

“Those intersections became the most important thing for me to try to convey, along with the idea of stripping down and the vulnerability that creates. There is this great line in the play where he wants to read her new book, and she won’t let him even after they’ve had sex,” Madsen said. “He doesn’t get that. But she says, ‘Well, no, I wouldn’t let you read the book because it’s too personal.’ What, really, is personal?”

He started with the idea of a box set. He took half of the walls and floor structure and turned it into a solid mass to represent her.

“She was very closed off and cloistered in her world,” he said.

Her entire world was made from the writing she based her existence off of, so the whole set was made of books.

“We bought 20,000 books, stripped the covers, bound them together and sliced them and built them literally like bricks,” Madsen said. “We built up with the wall and some of the furniture pieces, and even the floor that they walked on was made of books. It was really exciting and kind of fun to use material in that non-traditional way.”

Then the ceiling and back wall became his representation of the young blogger.

“It was all open structure,” Madsen said. “There were no walls or substance to it. It felt very open and airy, so we had floating windows and bookcases that didn’t attach to anything.”

For the furniture and furnishings, he held onto the vulnerable sense they were both at.

“We worked hard at it,” he said. “Even though we put stuff on the shelves, it felt bare. We stripped down finishings on the wood to make them naked and nude. We had flashes of color in the drapery and pillows and that kind of stuff.”

It remained, perhaps, subtle for the audience, though.

“It was fun to work in this way,” Madsen said. “I don’t think anyone who sat down and watched the show ever went, ‘Oh I get it. The couch doesn’t have a real covering on it, it’s like a naked couch.’ But I think it helps set the tone. Aaron and I were very cautious about not trying to be too clever, but to be smart. I think it really paid off.”

Madsen is excited about his first direct nomination for the Helen Hayes Awards, and he is excited about the future for the scene design program in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.

“Part of what I’ve always had a great passion for is the interaction and interplay between a teacher and a student,” Madsen said. “I get more joy from watching a student have a breakthrough moment than I do from any amount of applause I could receive from my work.”

He was looking for an institution that would allow him to create the kind of program he wanted to be a part of, which he found at UNL.

“I learned some wonderful things from my MFA program and some things I knew I wanted to adapt,” he said. “So to be in a place where I can have that support, I think UNL offers that fertile ground to say that there is support here. It requires the work and effort, and I’m not afraid of putting in the hours. Even just this past year, since this is just my first year here, I think we’ve made some awesome strides forward, and I’m really excited about the direction we’re going to be headed.”