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March 08, 2007

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Malachy Walsh

There was some interesting poster work for AVENUE Q awhile back.

And the work done by the now defunct MAD DOGS & ENGLISHMEN for the also defunct TINY MYSTIC THEATRE company was brilliant in every sense. I recall one ad that was a photo of a shelf crammed with jars holding brains in formaldehyde: One of the jars was empty and was labeled "Ethel Merman". The show being advertised was FRANKENSTEIN: THE MUSICAL. Funny, irreverant, intelligent. Terrific.

There are several problems, it seems to me, with most theatre adversting.

The first is a dependence on pull quotes to get people in. Since most people ask, "Is it any good?" it's logical that the marketing dept wants to use these quotes when they're complimentary of a production. Unfortunately, what's actually being sold there is the opinion of the published critical community, not the play itself. Worse (in my mind) it re-inforces the belief that theatre is a product, not an exploration or a chance to open up to something new and different. Not good for theatre overall. (But with tickets above $35 and less and less intimate space for staging, who can blame people for being less adventurous?)

A second problem, for me anyway, is that the marketing dept. always sells each show on its own. This makes sense in the short run. But I've never truly understood it for small theatre companies or for non-profits with seasons and no money to put out for every show. Sell what makes your theatre company different from other theatres - and do it with a personality that makes you different. Make me want to go see ANY SHOW you do. It's worth it, isn't it?

I've practiced what I preach here. Years ago, I ran a small theatre company in SF. We decided to stop advertising shows, and instead, advertise our sensibility. We ran the ads in the SF Fringe Festival Program. The ads never mentioned the show we were doing, what it was about, when it ran or where you could get tickets. There was just a phone number at the bottom for more info. There were many reasons our shows were sold out from beginning to end, but I feel this was part of it. You can see the ad at: http://litdept.blogspot.com/2007/02/in-lieu-of-real-post.html

(Though, if you're going to sell just on one show, do it the way MAD DOGS did it, please.)

Another issue, of course, is media. Books are being written on the slumping impact of print and television, particularly with younger groups. But no matter how imaginitve you get, print concepts are generally still going to set the tone publicly.

A final problem - that concerns the artistic ingredients you address - is that most theatre advertising is driven by graphic design, so it's rarely conceptual, and thus rarely interesting. And since most advertising-oriented graphic design borrows from established art styles, it's hard to really push the envelope there.

For me, I'm not sure the poster for THE REPORTER works all that much better than what you found to be a non-threatening watercolor for the Shinn play. I mean, a photo of journalists talking on a set with type set over it... I guess it's cool. I suppose I understand that it's a tense drama. But I don't see any reason it appeals to a decidedly younger or different audience.

However, I understand what you mean - and especially your point about how much the artist should be concerned with the marketing department's presentation of their work.

I talked with Tim O'Brien just after the first hardcover printing of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. The book's cover was austere: Black with huge sans serif type, all caps at the top. It stood out from all the other books on the shelves at the time - books with covers that were heavy with photos or ornate art work.

I told O'Brien I liked the cover because it was so different and he commented that he had to fight tooth and nail to get it done like that - the publisher wanted to have some kind of cheesey war imagery on the front of guys fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.

Now, had O'Brien lost, of course, it wouldn't have changed what was inside the book at all. But it - somehow - would've made my enjoyment of the book just a little bit different. And considering all the stimuli that go into an artistic experience, that difference is important.

Some subsequent softcover editions had the cheesey stuff on the cover. But whenever I reread the stories - or think of his book - I think of that one, which dovetails perfectly with the sensibilities of the work.

George Hunka

The LCT's Bernie Gersten can probably remember when Paul Davis was designing the poster art for the Public and Joe Papp's time at Lincoln Center: a few watercolors and pastels there too (and masterpieces of poster art, a few of them: Streamers, Ashes, Threepenny Opera, The Cherry Orchard). And since somebody's bound to mention the Ontological's "visual identity," let me mention it first: the Ontological's visual identity.

But I do want to note something that I've seen in both your review and in Jason Grote's essay, and that's a curious sort of ageism that's beginning to rankle. Worry as we will about (as Jason puts it) "[putting] something on stage that makes a difference to people whose lives reflect our own" or observing that "... Shinn is young. Perhaps, with more work like this, the same will be said of Lincoln Center’s audience" doesn't really tell me much about the problems with either theatre marketing or Lincoln Center's subscriber base. There are enough negative comments about the play from young bloggers, and I've personally heard some coruscating remarks about "Dying City" and plays like it from people half my age, to suggest that age isn't necessarily the problem. And in discussing Albee's recent interview in the LA Weekly, enough "cranky old coot" comments have been bandied about to make this seem systemic.

Of course this affects marketing of the plays, too -- your notes on James McMullan's posters, which tends to make "Dying City" look like a Wendy Wasserstein comedy-drama, are well-taken (the late Ms. Wasserstein, whatever her virtues and vices, was enormously popular with this very same LCT audience, as is, apparently, Sarah Ruhl). And I only wish theatre advertising were as eyecatching as the NT's, which, I agree, is enormously effective at communicating the style and content of their productions. (PS122's postcards, etc., similarly brand all their disparate productions with a look and feel that make them distinctly PS122 presentations, but don't get in the way of the work itself.) But if marketing and advertising skew to a group of people thought of as "young," that won't improve the plays any. Nor, regardless of their median age, the audiences.

David

Malachy: love those posters on your site. I recall the Soho space HERE, back in 1999, had a similar image campaign; irreverent and humorous. And yes, PS 122 and the Ontological have clear, consistent graphic identities. I take your point about my using The Reporter as not the most scintillating example, but you get the idea.

David

And George, ageism. Do I want to see people 40 years and younger filling the seats of LCT, MTC, Roundabout and other Off venues? YES. (Although the programming right now couldn't support them.) Do I want to see more cranky, philistine, fur-swaddled senior citizens muttering during the show and offering their analysis during intermission? Not so much.

The artistic directors of NYC's theaters need to be thinking about the next 20 years of audiences. There are young and adventurous theatergoers right now, weaned on Elevator Repair Service, Radiohole, Foreman, the Wooster Group and 13P, who are amassing more money and cultural capital and who may still want to spend their middle years watching exciting theater. I think Oskar Eustis knows this (he's doing exciting things at the Public). NO, theatergoers who love avant-garde obliquity may not be the majority of next-generation ticketbuyers, but they are a percentage. In short: Yes, I want more theater reflecting, refracting, distorting "the way we live now," young and old, and I think that the health of any theater depends on the mix of generations on the aisle. The old ones will always be there. It's the young who must be attracted (or pandered to, as you might think).

An a.d. from a great, small downtown venue who recently left his post talked about how his father, who ran a theater in the U.K. would periodically (every 3 years or so?) program a show that was so extreme or offensive it would force the closed-minded to cancel their subscriptions. This would clear room to attract (presumably) younger, more adventurous subscribers. Thus the system was "flushed out" from time to time. I don't know how true the story is, but my jaw hit the floor when he told me.

Ken

I agree with the preceding comment from David, though I don't want to make it sound like a slam on senior citizens, either. However, logic (as well as sitting in the audience with them time after time after time) tells me that the 60-and-over demographic is more likely to want to see something that is pleasantly well-done and reassuring, rather than confrontational and illuminating. They want pretty sets, attractive actors, and stories set in an immediately recognizable time and place. Now, of course there are younger people who want the same safe, non-threatening theater as their grandparents, and of course there are septuagenarians who want to see plays that kick out the jams, but all other things being equal, an older subscriber base will demand work that reaffirms its beliefs instead of challenging them.

And so, if we ask for the millionth time, "How do we get younger people into the theater?", the answer is the all-too-predictable "Lower the prices." Make theater as accessible and of-the-moment as catching a great new band at some lower east side dive. Create the desire in the young to seek their artistic thrills in theater rather than movies or TV. Advertise in new venues and in new ways, and for God's sake, please let's stop using the same artist with the same twee style to do the promotional materials for every show. I realize the LTC wants to create a recognizable "brand," but they're ultimately dooming themselves to be thought of as safe, bland, and out-of-it by the very people they need to attract.

Jaime

Going back to David's question in the post, The Public immediately came to mind, but in remembering some of their show art, I realize it's not the hit (Stuff Happens) and miss (Measure for Pleasure, Satellites) artwork, but the total branding of the Public's materials. From the big banner out front to the signage at the Delacorte, to the fonts on the posters and postcards, to the inserts for talkbacks. It's distinctive and, more importantly, has a feel to it. It strongly conveys a style.

As for show art, it's not an institution, but the Broadway poster for The Little Dog Laughed blew me away. I'd heard about the show when it was off-Broadway, knew what it was about, but had no desire to see it. Then I saw the poster in the Times Square subway station, and bam!, I wanted to see the show. The smirk on Julie White's face, the style of the picture - I felt like I knew what the show was about, its tone, its feel. When I saw the show, sure enough, just as I'd been intrigued by the poster, I connected to the show. What I loved was the same energy that the poster had captured. It was exactly what a poster should do - convey a sense of the show, and appeal to the people who are going to like the show. It's impossible for it to work perfectly - I'm sure some people were drawn in by the Little Dog Laughed poster and hated the show, or vice versa, but it was exciting to feel it work, for me, so perfectly.

isaac

I like The Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.'s poster artwork. They have a consistent visual identity that works for their work.

David Cote

Answering my own question, the playwrights group Youngblood has a nifty group photo and blog: http://youngbloodnyc.org/index.html

Aaron Riccio

Over at Off-Off Blogway (http://ooblogway.blogspot.com/) Ludlow Lad invited any producers out there to send him postcards for upcoming theater works, and promised to post them on his site. If you've been to a hip off-off-Broadway venue lately (like 3LD or HERE), you may notice the flood of such catchy postcard driven material. Branding is important (when the Public hosted the brunt of the Under the Radar festival, the pamphlet with the program was amazing), but so is just getting the image seen. Look at what Barnes & Nobles is like these days; Chip Kidd's art rules the roost, and new design is pretty much one of the only ways to get a book flipped through among all its comrades on the stands. Seems to me that it might be a good undertaking to build on David's initial comment here and get a blog going that just illustrates the types of marketing out there...I wish I had a scanner.

David Cote

Waaaaay back in 1992, when I was fresh to the city, the advertising of Off-Off shows via color (COLOR!!!) glossy postcards was relatively new. You could get 3000 of them printed for under $300 I remember. Of course that was a horrible waste of ink & paper (you'd be lucky if 1000 people saw your show), but you started seeing cannily Photoshopped cards stacked in lobbies. Then of course, the first Fringe in 1997 brought a tidal wave of crazy multicolored cards of all shapes and sizes. I can only assume the ability to print complex eye-catching cards has only gotten more affordable in the last decade. Great idea, Aaron. Of course blogs and company websites have just increased the creative/marketing possibilities.

Jeff Lewonczyk

The question of marketing/publicity design for theatre opens up a wider question: how effective is it for smaller theatres and shows in terms of getting the word out to audiences? At the moment, many of us rely (first and foremost) on word of mouth (buttressed by visual identity in the form of websites and poster/postcard campaigns), but also on the vagaries of editors, who have it within their hands to draw attention to theatres and shows that they deem worthy. For most individuals and institutions on the Off-Off level, actual print advertising is prohibitively expensive, at least in New York; even a press rep hired for a few weeks is a massive investment.

I’ve done a fair amount of graphic design for The Brick over the past few years, and we haven’t worried overmuch about creating a cohesive graphic identity. That’s partly because there are so many co-productions and festivals that doing so beyond a single project, and partly because it’s fun to shake things up. In addition to partnerships with other theatres, we rely mostly on local postering (in Williamsburg/Greenpoint) and postcards to get the word out.

As wonderful as it is to have paper artifacts to hand to out to people and businesses, my question is: how many people actually pick these things up? Has anybody out there gone to see a show based on the strength of a poster or postcard alone? Or is more a matter of context: where the show is located, what magazines you’ve read it in, who you’ve heard speaking about it? Do audiences pick up on consistency (a la PS 122), or are they attracted to individual shows? Will they be more likely to pursue more information on a show if they see a poster outside of a bar or outside of another theatre? The dynamics on the smaller end of things differ significantly from those at LTC or the like, and, in lieu of excess funds lying around for market research, are much harder to pin down.

Jeff Lewonczyk

Btw, apropos of Aaron's comment, I sheepishly invite readers to take a look at my own, newly-posted, still-not-quite-finished-because-I'm-kind-of-learning- web-design-as-I-go-along-but-it's-getting-there graphic design site, the vast majority of the examples in which are theatre-related. Enjoy, if possible!
http://www.pipermckenzie.com/design

Malachy Walsh

Generally speaking, the less money you have the more important it is to have a graphic identity that is repeated until it is recognizeable.

I watched a major regional theatre spend money on a logo redesign. When new people came in, they started all over. They wasted at least half their money.

In SF the look of a postcard and the way the blurb was written made a huge difference on who and how many came out to our plays. Since we were careful with the mailing lists we bought, I know the look and attitude the cards had brought people in to see the show that we did not personally know.

The cards and ads also helped to prepare our audiences for what they were about to see. They were predisposed to liking what we were doing.

It also made a difference to critics. We got some attention simply because it looked like our act was together. Furthermore, since we had a graphic look that we stuck to, each successive show got more attention since our look was not only memorable, but its repitition suggested we were gonna be around awhile.

The integrity of the look said the shows would be good and worthwhile.

And I can definitely say I've gone to shows because of a good card - and avoided some that had bad cards.

Everything matters.

Playgoer

I'm late to this, I know, but I just had to chime in to say amen to someone finally saying "What's up with these lame LCT posters!".... Look I'm sure they're all very fond of James McMullan and he's created many memorable images from the Guare & Wasserstein heyday of the 80s & 90s... but time to move on, guys, if you want to stay relevant.

Not to mention that in this particular case the art does a terrible disservice to Shinn's play. I was glad to see that in the Friday NYT print ad they smartly went with a cool photo that "ghosted" the 2 Pablo Schreibers, with one of them in military fatigues. The play in THAT photo is a more interesting play.

David M

Well, I'm late to this too, but thought I would clear up something from earlier comments -- Malachy, the company you were referring to in your initial post was Tiny Mythic (not "Mystic") and I, too, love the FRANKENSTEIN postcard. Tiny Mythic was helmed by Kristin Marting and Tim Maner, and they got together with another company, HOME, to create a new theater space in SoHo, the aforementioned HERE Arts Center. So the ad campaigns that both Malachy and David mentioned were actually coming from the same place.

You can see some of those poster/postcard images preserved for posterity in the bathrooms at the Ohio on Wooster St...

David M

Archer

The Soho Rep's posters/publicity have always been pretty amazing...see them (and check out the 2007 Writer/Director Lab readings this April/May/June) at www.sohorep.org

Will Nedved

I like the marketing we do.

Will Nedved

steppenwolf.org

Moxie the Maven

Very late to this discussion, but had to chime in. I heard Adam Guettel give a little talk to college students in 2005, shortly after Light in the Piazza had opened. He talked openly about *hating* the poster artwork, and preferring the cover artwork on the cast recording (that bright yellow background with Clara facing away from us). He encouraged the group to write to LCT and tell them how awful the poster artwork was, that it made the show seem dated, and didn't reflect the tone of the show in the slightest. I agreed wholeheartedly - Piazza might have been set in the past, but it was doing something really fresh and new. That poster artwork made it look like a dry museum piece.

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