The trouble with theatre posters

(This essay is being published simultaneously on my blog/calendar of local musical theatre, VancouverMusicals.com. – aa)

There’s something about many theatre posters that bothers me. They often seem to missing something important: any kind of description of the show in question.

Look at any movie poster, on the other hand, and you’re sure to see a pithy summing-up of what’s in store. Some of these have even outlasted their promotional purposes to make a dent in the popular culture, like “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” or “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water.”

While I don’t expect a brilliant and timeless slogan, I’m surprised that there usually isn’t anything other than the basics: the show’s name, that of the actors, writer and director, etc., dates and venue.

Posters, of course, are all about the visual, and often the chosen image can help define the tone or mood of the play. But just as often, it seems to me, the visual doesn’t really tell you anything about the plot.

When we’re talking about a well-known play or show, like Cats or Glengarry Glen Ross, I can understand that name recognition alone is enough. But new works are unknown quantities. True, sometimes the title itself communicates the tone and subject of a show perfectly (see “Debt, The Musical”). But not always. With live theatre, and arts attendance in general, always a little precarious, you’d think they’d try a little harder to inform and intrigue you.

A recently spotted poster for the play “Scorched” supported my point.

While the design is very clean and appealing, and the image is strong, it’s utterly coy as to what the play is about. A stylized bird (a dove of peace?) is split into black and white halves by a diagonal line. That image, taken together with the title and the prominently displayed Middle Eastern name of the playwright, Wajdi Mouawad, suggests a drama with geopolitical overtones. But the only info beyond the essentials is an admittedly glowing quote from the CBC, which sadly is also quite generic in its praise: “A remarkable achievement. Anyone who cares about good theatre should not miss it.” High praise, yes, but it doesn’t help me get a feel for the play itself.

On the play’s website, however, is this: “Civil war in the Middle East forms the backdrop for much of the play’s action as Mouawad explores with profound insight the concepts of love, loyalty, and betrayal.” That’s great, and speaks volumes about the play. Yet it’s only on the website, the address of which is buried in tiny type at the bottom-right corner.

Now, I’m a graphic designer by trade so when I speak to issues of visual communication, I speak from experience. And I know that while posters need visual impact to succeed, a strong visual without content and meaning behind it is an empty vessel. The primary meaning of even the most beautiful, eye-catching poster is to communicate a message. And while this may be a matter of taste, I tend to find the more abstract and obscure approaches less preferable to one that tangibly represents the themes and reaches out to try and draw in the viewer.

I thought that this whole approach might possibly be due to some kind of resistance to the perceived reductivism of the all-too-familiar movie tagline, perhaps maybe even an aversion to what’s perceived as a populist or even crass approach better suited to a mass-market medium than the (in theory) more rarified world of live performance.

When I spoke with Ryan Mooney of Fighting Chance Productions, he agreed with my observations about description-free theatre posters, but assured me that snobbery was definitely not the reason. “I think it’s space. A lot comes down to what you have to have on a poster, from the people that you get the royalties from. I definitely do not think it has anything to do with elitism.”

Mooney, whose production of Forbidden Broadway is currently packing them in at the PAL Theatre, thinks that posters aren’t really the most effective means of promotion anyway. “A poster is very static and people might see it, and might stop and look at it, but more often than not they just pass it by with a glance and forget the information. Unless you have the budget to print off hundreds and thousands of them then really they’re not that effective.”

He’s had a lot of success with more up-to-date methods, from social media approaches like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the ubiquitious text message. “With RENT we had a “text this number for more info” bit on the poster and it was just my cell number and I would text people the website and phone number for tickets. It worked extremely well, and was just a way for people to get information about it.”

So as we move forward, are posters themselves going the way of the dodo? Maybe, and maybe not. My feeling is that they are a good part of an overall marketing plan, sometimes merely serving to remind people of a show they’ve already heard about through other media.

But I wouldn’t discount the power of the poster on its own to spur action. I volunteer as a fundraiser for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, and last year’s Walkathon saw many participants who said they took part based solely on seeing our poster – not due to some personal contact or connection with our group or one of our volunteers.

So the old-fashioned, dead-tree poster would seem to have some life in it yet. Given that fact, it’s important for everyone – particularly theatre groups who need to get “bums in seats” – to make sure their posters really speak to their intended audience.

2 thoughts on “The trouble with theatre posters

  1. Great post, Adam.

    I agree with what you’re saying. I feel everything – posters, logos, etc helps to tell the play’s story, and some designs are not very good at doing that. (though some are visually very nice)

    I remember seeing posters for “Mom’s the Word” when I was in Vancouver in October and only sort of got what it was about when I saw other artwork on the actual theater on Granville Island where it was playing. I do like the Don Juan poster since it has enough elements to give you an idea of characters, time and setting, as does “Mrs. Dexter” to a simpler extent.

    I would say use the tag line – they’re used for a reason.

  2. Tag lines can be amusing, and a well-designed poster is all very nice, but the movie industry has known for decades that what gets people to come to see something is a trailer. If you want to know what an album’s like, you can hear a single from it on the radio, or thirty-second clips on Amazon. For most games you can get a demo, for free.

    But plays? Nothing. You can have a paragraph of text, if you’re lucky, and maybe you can trust in the reputation of the playwright, if they’re sufficiently famous that you’ve even heard of them. (A fun party game: “Quick! Name ten living playwrights.”)

    What I want is more video clips of plays and musicals online.

    For very short-run shows, especially where costumes aren’t worn and the show isn’t in the theatre until the last moment, okay, it could be difficult. But for anything even remotely professional, please, why can’t you post something online showing me even sixty seconds of the play, even thirty seconds, to give me a taste of its visual and dynamic style and of how the actors perform.

    I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve seen this done: once on the Playhouse Theatre’s website, where a clip from “Studies In Motion” clinched our ticket sales, and once for each nomination for “Best Play” at the Tonys last year, where again I was able to think “Whoa, those look good”.

    Without that, I’m sorry, but it’s just very difficult to persuade myself to go see a play, no matter how good it says it is – like any poster will ever mutter under its breath, “Eh, this play is okay, I guess, for people who like that kind of thing.” In England in the 80s there was a joke to the effect that all plays described themselves on their posters with the tagline “Searing indictment… savage critique… Thatcher’s Britain”. Well, yes, that was a very populous category of play, but it’s not exactly very informative, is it?

    For people who just generally like plays, of course, this information isn’t necessary. But advertising and marketing aren’t supposed to influence people who are already interested in your product. It’s supposed to make yours truly – casually interested in theatre if it’s likely to be a good use of my time – turn his head and say “Whoa! That looks interesting! I must see that!” And a piece of static graphic art is not, in my view, the right medium for advertising a stage play.

    I’m pretty sure, from my limited experience in show production, that there would be copyright issues with this, which can’t be solved by my waving my hand and saying that copyright holders should wake up and smell the coffee. But they should. It’s 2010: get a website and put clips on it, or I’m not coming. I have spoken ;-)

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