Everything is Already Something Week 26: Stay Relevant or Die

Allison Page is a survivor. 

There’s a tumblr page called SHOW NUFF that just contains tons of “Terrible PR Pictures from Theater of the Unites States” (though they’ve actually started using photos from UK shows as well.) I saw it and went through a range of feelings.

1) This is hilarious. These photos are awful.

2) Oh my God, I hope I’m not in one of these photos.

3)  Shit…these images are contributing to my biggest problem with theater.

4)  Okay, good, I don’t see any pictures of me.

5)  That’s…Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno.

no caption necessary

no caption necessary

Eventually I got unnecessarily curmudgeony about the whole thing. It started making me kind of angry. Looking through those photos, a person who is familiar with a fair share of theater can connect some dots and start to figure out which plays/musicals these photos are from. (Holy hell, how many companies are doing productions of Boeing-Boeing? Like…all of them?)

Some are kooky door-slamming comedies you probably did in college. Fine. Fair. I can understand those shows having stupid photo representations. But some of them are clearly supposed to be dramas or at least modern plays taking place now-ish. And yet the people in the photos…I mean, they don’t even look like people. I’m not going to calculate the percentage of photos that contain a person with hands-on-hips making a “Why I Oughtta” face at someone who is standing closer to the camera than they are, but it’s GOT to be a high one. I don’t feel like I’m looking at actors. I’m looking at caricatures. They might as well be sketched in bright colors, with over-sized heads and a cartoon background. Something you’d have drawn at the county fair when you’ve been drinking and you and that guy are totally gonna be together forever so you get sketched sitting next to each other and pay $25 for a picture you’ll put up in your room until you break up and then you’ll promptly throw it away and replace its spot on your wall with a Garfield calendar.

How many times have you heard or read “Theater is dead” or “Theater is dying” and had people blather on about it? How many people do you know who have never even seen a play? There are many contributions to be made to the conversation about why theater isn’t as popular as it once was (cost, more entertainment options, blah blah blah) but fuck those, because my problem is that it so often doesn’t seem relevant enough to be important. And we’re not spending nearly enough attention trying to make it feel relevant to a new audience or to…ya know…human beings. And these hilarious images feel like examples to me – examples of what people think of when they think of the words “theater” and “acting”. They look like every ham-fisted college production of Noises Off I’ve seen, complete with slamming doors and wacky takes to the audience.

Oh no, they're fighting! Gee, I hope they don't get hurt!

Oh no, they’re fighting! Gee, I hope they don’t get hurt!

They are filled with farce and lacking humanity. And that’s fine if that’s what you’re going for. I love farce. But I’m also keenly aware that many of the shows pictured are not supposed to be that.

To be honest, I hate production photos anyway. They never look like the show, to me. Or they never look how I want the show to look. And I’ll be the first to say I’m guilty of it as well. I’ve been in bad production photos, and taken bad ones, and produced shows with bad ones. But with everything so accessible today, you take a photo and everyone’s seen it in 24 hours or less. And now that’s what the show is to them. And if they’re not up for a fish-slappin’ goof-fest that’s disconnected from the world – they’re probably not going to come see it. Plays are filled with actors, right? So they should be able to express some sort of human emotion in a photograph, right? As opposed to grimacing as they wind up to punch someone in the face? I’d rather see a more realistic representation of emotion. I know we’re capable, as a whole, of doing that. A community theater production of The Music Man with like 48 children in it? Sure, they’re probably not so worried about that. But we’re putting all this time, energy, and yes – straight up cash – into each show we produce or direct and work so hard on because we love it…but we’re short-changing the representations the public actually sees! Sure, the show may be full of a range of emotions and deep realizations and important comments on modern society or the fate of the future but if this is what the public is seeing, how are we supposed to expect them to care enough to find out?

The dreaded double-smiling-fisticuffs

The dreaded double-smiling-fisticuffs

Yes, there’s a difference between a poster or postcard image for a play and the production photos from it – but is there a difference to the viewer who is outside of the theater world? Not really. It’s a photographic representation of a play, and if that image doesn’t show the viewer what the show is, or how it should feel, then WHY ARE WE LOOKING AT IT? Who is it for? Is it for the theater company? Great, put it on file somewhere and don’t show it to anyone. Is it for the director as evidence that they directed something? Great, put it on file somewhere and don’t show it to anyone. Is it for the actors, so they have photos of themselves as some character? Great, put it on file somewhere and don’t show it to anyone. But if it’s for public viewing, to entice them to see the show, then it should be better. The majority of theater makers are in it for the love of it all; for the passion we have for it and to create art. That’s just something to keep in mind the next time you want a photo of an actor with one hand on hip and the other disapprovingly wagging a finger at some other character. Or when you take a photo wherein Macbeth appears to be covered in ketchup.

WHY?!?!?!?!?

WHY?!?!?!?!?

Just think a little, is all I’m asking.

Theater is relevant. I really believe that. But if a fantastically relevant production falls over in the woods and there’s no one there to see it, is it really relevant? My boyfriend is not a “theater guy”. He hadn’t really seen any plays until he had the misfortune to come skipping into my life. We had a conversation about the topic of this post last night and he agreed with me, saying “Yeah, that’s always what I thought theater was like. Like, silly like that.” as I showed him the SHOW NUFF tumblr. I like to think he’s a little more aware now that theater is a varied array of things – some of which he even likes! But that’s only because I’ve dragged him to things he was sure he would hate, and then didn’t. Why did he think he would hate them? Because they looked ridiculous.

We’re not as out of touch as we look, so let’s not look so out of touch. We’re people making things for ourselves and others and that can be a powerful thing. It’s very possible that you think I’m overreacting about this. All I ask is that you look through that tumblr and ask yourself this question: “At any point in my life, have I ever seen anyone at all EVER do this in the natural world?”

So casual. So cool. Everyone does the back-to-back at parties. CASE CLOSED.

So casual. So cool. Everyone does the back-to-back at parties. CASE CLOSED.

You can see all the hilarious/irritating photos at http://prisdifficult.tumblr.com. It does say “amateur theater” but many of these companies aren’t what I would call amateur, and there are even Broadway show photos included. Nobody’s perfect.

All photos taken directly from the SHOW NUFF tumblr page.

You can find Allison at home on her couch because she just got laid off, which is about the same as finding her on twitter @allisonlynnpage.

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8 comments on “Everything is Already Something Week 26: Stay Relevant or Die

  1. Cassidy says:

    That MacBeth picture is starring my friend Kim from grad school. She’s a pretty well established Broadway and regional actor! We can all be done in by a bad art director…

    • Allison Page says:

      Ha! I knew there would be someone who knew somebody in these photos. (I really am surprised I haven’t found myself in the mix…YET.) That’s the funny thing – it really doesn’t matter how awesome the actors are if we’re still shoving them into these types of visuals – they’re going to look silly.

  2. I get what you mean about not wanting to see yourself. Some of those photos are from local Bay Area productions with actors I know.

    Kinda sent a chill down my spine pondering if I might be in one of those photos.

  3. Wylie Herman says:

    Love this post! Promo shoots are a necessary evil, but they are inherently EVIL, here’s why: If you’ve ever seen a filmmaker cut together a trailer for a film in order to stir up funding for the actual project, you’ll see a hodgepodge of imagery, sounds and music to represent the feeling of the film they’re trying to create. However, the final product will look, feel and sound almost nothing like the trailer. It’s an advertisement for a product that does not yet exist. Promo shoots are no different. A few times I’ve met my costars for the first time on a promo shoot for a play, and we go from, “Hi, nice to meet you.” to, “Okay, now let’s do that drunk seduction scene from the middle of act 2.” At this point we haven’t even discovered the relationship of our characters (or to each other) and are basically in a bizarre mannequin mode, bending to the whims of the photographer on set. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble into a few genuine moments that almost coincidentally align with the final product. I think the way to fix those odds is to have a director on set who has a crystal clear vision of specific moments they’d like to create, and the vocabulary to engage their actors in a meaningful way, helping us to create those moments…Or, there’s always photoshop.

    • Allison Page says:

      I definitely think part of it is that the director needs to have some solid idea about how they want their show represented in photos all around. Too often it falls by the wayside, likely due to a “There’s a bunch of other shit not going right already, and that shit is more important” problem. Sadly, all that other important shit doesn’t matter so much if the audience this production would be perfect for doesn’t see it because it’s not been made appealing to them. That’s just a shame.

  4. Much of the problem you cite has to do with the lack of professional theatre photographers who have access to dress rehearsals. Most of the posed shots you see on the SHOW NUFF Tumbler page were obviously taken from a low-budget marketing perspective that hopes to hit prospective ticket buyers over the head by overemphasizing the comic or tragic elements of a show. As a critic, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen press photos that have an actor on each side of the picture with an enormous empty space between them. The idea that “Anyone can take a picture” does not hold true in live theatre. There is an art to theatre photography as well as knowing what to look for in a shot that will work for publicity purposes. The further you go up the professional ladder, the more likely you are to find photographers who know how to choose a shot that tells a story. The more expensive performing arts organizations (theatre, opera, ballet) have a handful of professional photographers on call whose work is excellent. But these people expect to be paid for their services and, like anything else, you get what you pay for.

    George Heymont
    http://myculturallandscape.blogspot.com/2007/11/about-author.html
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-heymont

  5. Ken says:

    I curate Show Nuff.
    I think the problem of bad publicity photos is epidemic in the American Theater.
    One of my goals was to highlight this problem (as well as to laugh a lot.)
    I’m glad to read such a thoughtful response.

    • Allison Page says:

      I suspected you might be coming at it from a similar perspective.
      You know what they say – the first step to recovery is admitting there’s a problem…which is hopefully something theater companies all over the place will do, now that their visuals are so readily available for consumption.
      Thanks for reading! I look forward to laughing at the bad photos until the good ones take over.

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