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The man behind the spotlight

Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Ryan O’Gara talks lighting design and more for upcoming production of ‘The Producers’

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Lights, camera, action: Since 1990, lighting designer Ryan O’Gara has been a staple at Bristol Riverside Theatre. In addition to BRT’s Man of La Mancha, which he won a Barrymore Award, he’s worked on 25 Broadway shows including Hamilton. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTO

It was hardly midway through the 12-hour day of rehearsal, but Ryan O’Gara was in the zone. With only days to spare until The Producers went live at Bristol Riverside Theatre, he knew everything had to be nearly perfect. Situated front and center, surrounded by notebooks, laptops and headsets, O’Gara observed each scene like a hawk. After realizing a prop door was causing unwanted shadows on stage, he informed director Keith Baker it should be nixed for the scene. Baker happily obliged.

The past few weeks have been filled with correcting little nuisances like this to make The Producers the biggest show of BRT’s 2017–18 season. Thankfully, O’Gara is somewhat of a wizard when it comes to stage lighting — a production aspect that can either make or break the overall tone of a show. During a brief lunch break, The Times sat down with the longtime lighting designer to learn about his deep Bristol roots and how he managed to create a “razzle dazzle” mood for this classic, high-energy musical.

Growing up, O’Gara was your average kid, playing outside his childhood home on Lincoln Avenue and attending St. Mark’s. During his grade school days, a friend of his worked part-time at BRT, and one summer day, he decided to tag along. Though his friend eventually parted ways with the theater, O’Gara kept going back, soon landing an internship in 1990 with founder Susan Atkinson.

“It’s a long history,” he said of his time with BRT.

As O’Gara entered his teen years, he witnessed multiple peers enter a downward spiral, taking to the streets and turning to drugs. To this day, he credits BRT for keeping him on a positive track.

“You can go a lot of different directions in your life,” he said. “I was able to learn a craft and find something that I loved, that I thought I was good at.”

When O’Gara was first employed, he explained the theater was in the middle of a turnover in production management, which worked to his advantage. Since there weren’t a lot of people around, he was able to get a taste of everything as he helped with sound and scenery. He even gave acting a whirl with a small part in Irma La Douce, but soon discovered he’d rather control the spotlights than stand under them. It was at this point O’Gara realized his passion for lighting.

“It made sense to me. All the other stuff, I wasn’t as interested in,” he reflected.

According to O’Gara, lighting is the aspect that changes most in the course of a production, especially during BRT’s summer shows. To master this art that was vital to any musical, drama or comedy at the theater, O’Gara knew he needed to learn more. After graduating from the School of Design and Production from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, his jam-packed career as a lighting designer truly kicked off.

O’Gara’s lengthy resume includes work on 25 Broadway shows, including Come from Away, A Bronx Tale and that little-known play Hamilton, which he names as one of his favorite productions to have a hand in.

“I’ve seen the show 100s of times with six different companies and it’s still fresh,” he said. “You don’t get bored of it, which sometimes happens when you’re recreating shows for years upon years.”

As far as BRT, a standout show for O’Gara was Man of La Mancha, which he won a Barrymore Award for last year. His local work also includes time at Walnut Street Theatre, Paper Mill Playhouse, Signature Theatre DC, Laguna Playhouse, Bucks County Playhouse, Capital Repertory Theatre, Lincoln Center Festival and Barter Theatre.

After years of experience at multiple venues, O’Gara has his creative process down to a science. When tasked with designing the lighting plot for The Producers, he began by listening to the soundtrack, which he explained always helps him wrap his head around a show.

“It just starts with me and the music and builds from there,” he said.

Planning continued during a creative meeting during which Baker and the production team discussed where they wanted to head both visually and aesthetically. By this point, O’Gara also had rough sketches in hand from the set designers. From the start, he understood The Producers would be a challenge, with the show having more sets and props than any previous production. But it was a task he was more than willing to tackle.

O’Gara looked at everything, including angles and color palettes. His mission was to make each set its own little world, allowing audiences to feel like they’ve joined Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in the middle of glitzy, glamorous Broadway.

“It’s a big, complicated show with a lot of locations,” he said. “This is one of the paramount shows that the Bristol Riverside will produce. They’re really going above and beyond. This is definitely the show of the season.”

Bristol Riverside Theatre’s opening night of The Producers is Thursday, March 8. For tickets and more information, visit brtstage.org, call 215–785–0100 or stop by the box office at 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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