Drawing boards

An eye-catching poster for a theatre production will reel in a potential audience, stimulating their interest. Nick Smurthwaite takes the bait

No impresario in his right mind would ever consider putting on a big budget show without a costly and carefully thought-out marketing strategy. You don’t have to be a regular theatre-goer to recall the simple, yet striking images promoting the musicals Cats, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera.

What few people realise is that all the graphics for these marathon blockbusters – each one an international hit – emanated from the same design base, Dewynters, specialist in entertainment advertising, marketing, and design.

According to its website, Dewynters built its reputation on the “bold, powerful” graphics for these shows, starting with what is surely the best known theatre poster ever – the startling cats’ eyes for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, now in its 18th year and the longest running musical of all time.

“Cats really changed the face of theatre graphics,” says Karen Shaw of Dewynters. “Before that, posters tended to be rather complicated affairs, with detailed illustrations and too much billing. The thing about Cats was that it pared all that down to one startling image.” It is an image that has endured for nearly two decades without ever falling foul of the shifting sands of fashion.

“What would be the point of changing it when it was such a strong brand image?” says Bob King, Dewynters’ head of graphics. “We put out a leaflet for Cats once that didn’t have the eyes and it just didn’t get picked up.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s other marathon runner, Starlight Express, which opened in 1984, has been perceived in very different marketing terms. Because it has always appealed to the youth market, there has been a continuing process of re-thinking the graphics. “The people who loved it 15 years ago are now bringing their children, and the show itself was redesigned in the early Nineties,” says King.

One of the key considerations for King and his colleagues, when designing an image, is to make sure it is adaptable, from a 96-sheet outdoor location to a button badge. If it’s a musical, the image must also pass the bus test: a big budget musical is nothing if it’s not emblazoned on the side of a bus.

“We mock up the bus poster, nip over to the nearest bus depot and get someone to hold it up while we decide if it works,” says King. “You never know if it’ll work until you actually see it on the bus.”

So what exactly is the purpose of a show poster? Now that the majority of ticket sales are made through the Internet, it might seem to have outlived its usefulness as a marketing tool.

“The poster is the first tangible thing you can show someone,” says Shaw, Dewynter’s account manager for all the Cameron Mackintosh musicals. “The production becomes real once you’ve established an image, even if that image changes a few times before you finally go to press. Sometimes a producer will come to us and say, ‘We really liked the poster for Phantom of the Opera… I’d like one like that.’ What they’re basically saying is if we give them a poster like Phantom, they’ll have a hit show on their hands,” she says.

According to King, “We do as much as we can to give a show brand awareness, but if the show hasn’t got what it takes to be a hit, it makes no odds what we come up with. You can’t sell a show on the poster alone.”

For Michael Mayhew, head of graphics at the Royal National Theatre, the aim is to whet appetites, make people want to find out more about a show, rather than helping to sell tickets. Because the National is a theatre where at least three shows run concurrently – it has three separate auditoriums under one roof – Mayhew and his team have to ensure not only that the posters for those shows are compatible in colour and design, but that the next batch of three are different enough to avoid confusion with the previous three.

Unlike Dewynters, which liaises mostly with producers, Mayhew, who joined the National’s graphics team 20 years ago, tends to work more with directors, who very often have definite ideas about what they want. “Most of them have a view on how the poster should look. I need to know what he or she is going to do with a play in terms of setting, period and so on. I can’t work in a vacuum.”

According to King, the big subsidised companies like the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House have an advantage over the commercial sector in that they don’t have to do the hard sell. Also, they are not slaves to comparative billing (such as different size typeface for each actor, according to fame, ego or remuneration), like Dewynters.

On the debit side, Mayhew is always racing against the clock because of the rapid turnover of shows. “I like using actors’ faces for posters – a few years back we did a series of faces photo-graphed by Terence Donovan just before he died – but that means encroaching on rehearsal time to take pictures, and directors need all the rehearsal time they’ve got,” he says.

The current crop of shows at the National is typically diverse, taking in one Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice), one obscure revival (Money), and one new work (The Darker Face of the Earth). For the last, a melodrama about black cotton pickers in 19th century Carolina, Mayhew enlarged a face of one of the black actors, taken in rehearsal, and then overlaid it with computer-created flames, representing the burning passions in the play. “The face is representative rather than specific,” says Mayhew. “You have to be careful about plucking someone out of the cast because it might offend the other actors.”

For The Merchant of Venice, which director Trevor Nunn has set in the Thirties, Mayhew trawled through books to find a suitable image, eventually settling for a photograph of an elderly orthodox Jew on the street of an eastern European ghetto. “Trevor felt he looked too old for Shylock, so I had to knock 20 years off him by computer enhancement. We wanted him to look the same age as Henry Goodman, who plays Shylock in this production. The easiest thing would have been to use Henry Goodman’s face, but that would have been a bit obvious,” he says.

The poster for Money, a convoluted Victorian comedy, is by far the most playful and imaginative. “The director was very keen not to look too Victorian or fusty. I hired the illustrator Andrei Kilmowski to come up with something startling. I did the title myself, using wacky typefaces which worked well because Money is a short word. You can do more with short titles. I tried it in a formal typeface and it just looked bland,” says Mayhew.

Mayhew has used another outsider, cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, for the recently opened Battle Royal, about the stormy marriage of the Prince Regent and Caroline of Brunswick. “They were two of the most caricatured people of their time so we thought it was appropriate to commission a leading caricaturist of our time to provide a Nineties equivalent.”

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