Theater Around The Bay: A Post About Posters

Our guest post today is by long time Theater Pub Art Director, Cody Rishell, who is making his debut on the blog as a writer!

We have all been enchanted by posters, and I’m willing to bet that there’s a poster hanging in your home, office, or studio that you cherish. It’s a theater poster or a film poster, a motivational poster, a propaganda poster, or a poster that just lets you escape for a few seconds in the day whenever you look at it. We hang them for education in when we’re in elementary school, and out of rebellion when we get to high school; in college it’s how we make our dorm room feel like our room.

When you're in my bedroom, you Can-Can sucker.

When you’re in my bedroom, you Can-Can sucker.

It’s a fine art, the poster, and has an incredible history that is largely responsible for bringing fine art to a lot of people who can’t afford originals or a expensive prints. It took art from inside the salons of Paris and put it into the streets and the homes of the lower classes, which was kind of a big deal. We owe a lot to the early greats and the Cherets, Muchas, and Lutrecs of the most recent ages. Hell, I dare you to look at a Drew Struzen and not feel enchanted by the Star Wars universe.

Since I much prefer Mucha, however, you're getting some Mucha.

Since I much prefer Mucha, however, you’re getting some Mucha.

Now, the poster has leapt from carts and panels to become a cornerstone of modern marketing. At its core, the poster’s purpose is to inform the greater public of SOMETHING, that SOMETHING is happening and you had better be a part of it. It’s not an easy task. A poster has about 3 seconds to create enough interest that a viewer remembers the image and whatever slogan your marketing team spent hours (or seconds) on wordsmithing. And truly good posters are hard to make for that reason. A lot of them, even some really beautiful ones, are still forgetable, often either because they’re not-eye catching enough, or so overwhelming (or obtuse, or complex) that they fail to convey their intent quickly enough to associate the image with whatever it’s supposed to be selling.

No, really, this poster is lovely... but what the hell is it trying to tell me?

No, really, this poster is lovely… but what the hell is it trying to tell me?

I’ve worked in the Bay Area theater scene as a graphic artist for a little over six years, and I have seen a lot of posters (usually reduced to their lesser cousin, the postcard.) I’ve seen some pretty terrible ones, some mediocre ones, some great ones, and some mind blowing ones, but I can’t really say that the poster, whatever form it takes, is really working for a lot of venues. There are a host of reasons as to why, all of which are understandable: shows come with contracts stating you have to use X imagery, artistic directors end up creating the posters themselves, marketing people put all their effort behind social marketing instead, etc. Whether it was lack of time, funds, initiative, know-how, or a great idea that sort of fizzled, at the end of the day, a lot of Bay Area theater scene posters kind of fail, and when I say that, I by no means think that every poster I design is perfect either, because the poster is a really simple, but incredibly complex, monster, and often times it kicks my ass too.

I may also have really high standards.

I may also have really high standards.

I will probably lose black box street cred when I say this, but I love “The Phantom of the Opera.” I first heard the overture of Act One when I was 9 when my sister was rehearsing it on her flute. I remember asking what it was, and she showed me the shows music book. The cover was a replica of the poster from the show, and it looks like how that overture should feel: dark, moody, and romantic.

Bravi, bravi, bravissimi...

Bravi, bravi, bravissimi…

It’s also so simple: black, a mask and a rose, and the shattered mirror font of the title. It’s not complicated but it really tells you what the show is about, without using a photo, while also leaving a ton of mystery, creating intrigue. It assists in the illusion that the show seeks to cast on the audience. All of the great theater posters have this approach in common, from “The Fantasticks” to “Wicked”. The best posters are simple, iconic, and tell you something about the show to pique an interest. They’re the brand of the show that adorns all other marketing materiel like programs, web banners, and e-mail blasts, and they’re usually the first impression your audience sees of the thing you’ve worked so hard on. Therefore they need to convey the mood of the piece, the flavor of the evening in store, along with subject matter, while also still leaving room for all that actual information like dates and times and places.

You are in for singing, violence, blood, and fabulous hair... AT THE ST. MARCUS THEATER!

You are in for singing, violence, blood, and fabulous hair.

I won’t go into much detail about my own process, but I’ve learned a few tricks along the way that I think are good things to keep in mind, both as a designer and as the person working with a designer, when creating posters for the theater:

1) Details of the show. Check the profound adjectives at the door. I want to know the title, who wrote it, what will the set look like, what will the costumes look like, what era does it all take place in, and who or what is the playwright’s favorite artist or design aesthetic. After this, tell me in one sentence the message you want to get across about your play. If you are going to put on a production of “Hamlet” where all of the male characters are played by female actors, and vice versa, because you believe “Hamlet transcends gender” that’s a pretty bold statement. So the design should probably be something bold.

Nothing says bold like Death looking you in the face.

Nothing says bold like Death looking you in the face.

2) What has come before this? There are so many ways to sell “Hamlet”, but what is the best way to sell Hamlet for your production? Looking at what others have done in the past and steering away from that is a good place to start, since obviously you want something brand new (unless your concept is to actively evoke other people’s interpretation), but how does your unique production inspire or justify going into new visual territory? Looking at how another company did (or did not) solve this design problem is a great way to get ideas- including ideas on what not to do.

Hmmmmm...

Hmmmmm…

3) What is the language of your audience? Tap into your inner anthropologist, and go out and see what the community you are designing for likes to do, talk about, and see. What images resonate with them- in good and bad ways? What challenges them? What bores them? What do they talk about- and especially what do they make fun of? Where does their aesthetic, your aesthetic, and the production’s aesthetic all meet?

The MTV Generation is now reaching Theater Patron age... can you tell?

The MTV Generation is now reaching Theater Patron age… can you tell?

Of course, most of the time, as a contract artist, you have to use already established imagery that has been designed by a design house, because in the Bay Area shows are predominantly put on by companies who are more concerned (perhaps justifiably so) with branding themselves than their individual shows (which is more the case on, say Broadway, where each show is kind of it’s own little company). But for the shows where you do have the chance to truly create the marketing images you send out, treat that process like it is a part of the play’s process, because it’s just as important in the long-run. Remember that while the poster helps get the audience in the door, they’re also (along with postcards and programs) the take-aways. They’re the thing that you give to audience members to remember all of your hard work and time, and ideally they hang your poster on a wall and be re-inspired by the show every time they glance at it for years to come. I think that it is really a precious thing when you can become a part of what long-term inspires someone, and so as you (and I) and our theatrical collaborators strive to create the perfect poster, always remember that the art is Art too!

Cody Rishell is a graphic artist who can often be found creating images and posters for the San Francisco Theater Pub, the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and for his own interests and musings. His past work also includes the Fringe Festival 2012, Bay One Acts 9 – 12, and Central Works. He currently has a daily cartoon called Clyde The Cyclops, which follows the adventures of a little blue cyclops named Clyde.

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