With just one image, poster artwork it has to convey the theme, emotion and story of the play or musical, it has to be simple enough to be understood immediately yet exciting enough to grab your attention, and it has to entice you to buy a ticket.
When done well, when all the elements come together seamlessly, the theater poster is not just functional and informative; it’s also a piece of art, a thing of beauty.
Just look at Toulouse Lautrec’s cabaret posters. Or Paul Davis’ iconic posters for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival in the mid-70s. Or James McMullen’s posters for New York’s Lincoln Center Theater.
For Florida Repertory Theatre’s 15th anniversary season this year, Tony Seaman knew he had to come up with something special. The creative director at Noise Inc., an advertising and branding agency based in Sanibel and Milwaukee, Mr. Seaman has designed Florida Rep’s posters for the past five seasons.
The thing he wants his theater posters to do is intrigue people, Mr. Seaman says.
“I like to think people are curious… and if you give them a little bit of intrigue, they might want to discover a little bit more. That’s what I try to do. I don’t want to give the story away or say everything in one poster, but just intrigue someone to see what it’s all about.”
Two years ago, for the venue’s 13th season, he created posters jam-packed with type, similar to circus or carnival posters.
For last season, he went with a simple, clean look.
“Overall, we just tried to strip down and have a little bit of a bare-bones approach, use a lot of silhouette shapes and simple colors,” Mr. Seaman says.
The season’s opening show usually helps determine the theme of Florida Rep’s posters, says Emily Kettner, digital strategies director at Noise. “Last year, ‘Rumors’ was the opening play and it had more of a simplistic, contemporary feel,” she adds.
This year’s opening show, “Lend Me a Tenor,” is set in 1934 in an art deco hotel suite, so Mr. Seaman and Florida Rep decided to go with an art deco feel for the 2012-13 posters.
A group effort
Like theater, good graphic design is a collaborative venture. Every summer, Florida Rep producing artistic director Robert Caccioppo and associate director Jason Parrish meet with Noise CEO John Specher and Mr. Seaman and Ms. Kettner to discuss the upcoming lineup of plays. This year, Florida Rep showed the Noise team an image of A.M. Cassandre’s iconic 1930s “Normandie” poster, which presents the hull of a steamship in such close-up that it looks as if it’s two seconds from mowing you over. The colors on the poster fade from dark to light, as if spray-painted.
This was the type of look they wanted for the theater’s 15th anniversary season, they told Mr. Seaman.
He then set about making thumbnail sketches.
“We do a lot of research,” he says. “We pull out specific elements or themes within the play that we can use in the artwork. There’s a lot of backand forth. I do pencil sketches, and start with that. There may be times we’re taking a chance or risk with the layout with some artwork, and if it’s something they’re not comfortable with or feel differently about, we can go back to the drawing board without a lot of time at the onset.”
Sometimes the clients love a concept at first sight; sometimes it’s two or three rounds before they agree, he says.
This year they went back and forth quite a bit for “Educating Rita,” the closing play of the season in the Arcade Theatre.
“Tony provided a sketch, and they liked many of the elements that were in the sketch,” Ms. Kettner says. “But it wasn’t the attitude or the tone they were looking for. We went back and provided a new sketch, but the tone still wasn’t quite there.”
After three or four rounds, Mr. Seaman says, “We stumbled on a solution that nailed it.
“If anything, that was an example of the collaboration where Florida Rep wasn’t willing to settle and we were willing to keep at it until they loved it.”
But sometimes, Mr. Seaman says, they love an image at first sight.
The poster for “Talley’s Folly,” which opens Nov. 27, was one.
“I have to rave about it,” says Ms. Kettner. “Tony did a great job with the entire theme and look of the play. It’s a romance about the courtship of Talley and her older suitor, and in the artwork, Tony was able to combine the two characters. The play unfolds in the boat house, so he was able to combine the two characters in love, and the water.”
The two faces in profile form a heart. You can also see the tip of a rowboat and a full moon over water.
“Sometimes (the ideas) do come easily, and as much as you never want to take the first solution, sometimes you find yourself coming back, after the research, to what intuitively made sense. Sometimes there’s the proverbial waste can full of attempts,” Mr. Seaman says ruefully.
He approached “Talley’s Folly” a number of different ways before finally ending up with what was presented to Florida Rep.
“It’s more or less working through a lot of different decisions before something clicks and it all kind of makes sense,” he says.
The other poster Florida Rep loved immediately was for “Other Desert Cities,” which opens March 12. The Tony Award-winning play is about a woman who comes home to her wealthy family for the holidays and drops a bombshell: She’s written a memoir about them. The poster shows the back of a young woman in a white bathing suit, standing on the edge of a diving board, book in hand. She’s looking at a large house in the desert, bordered by palm trees.
“Right away, as soon as we provided the sketch, they said, ‘Yes, I can’t wait to see the final artwork for this one,’” Ms. Kettner says. “Pretty much, when we provided it, they said it was perfect.”
That play presented more of a challenge to Mr. Seaman, because he had to apply an art deco feel to a contemporary play. “But we found a way to get (the idea) across and still maintain the consistency in the artwork,” he says.
With every theater season, there are numerous challenges in creating the posters. Though the plays are disparate, the posters have to have a unified feel, as if they all belong in the same family.
“I think the hardest part — or, once we solve it, the most rewarding part — is to say or show something that hasn’t been said before,” Mr. Seaman says. Because most of the plays have been done by other companies across the country, it would be easy to find artwork that’s already been done, too, he says. “To try to say it in a new way is the biggest challenge, to pull out that one thing about that play that you can’t say about any other play, but put it across in a way that no one’s done before.”
A class act.
Mr. Seaman also designed Florida Rep’s 15th anniversary logo. It’s set in an art deco-shaped pentagon and appears on all of the season’s posters. (Eagle-eyed theatergoers will also notice the same shape on the current set of “Lend Me a Tenor”: two similarly shaped mirrors stage right and stage left.)
Noise Inc. has won numerous ADDY awards from the Advertising Federation of Southwest Florida for its work for Florida Rep — more than 40 in the past four years, including Silver, Gold, Judge’s Choice and Best of Show, which is the ultimate prize. Their work has won Best of Show and the Judge’s Choice awards two years in a row.
“It’s such an honor to have such a quality theater company in Southwest Florida to work with,” Ms. Kettner says. “I’m not being cliché when I say it brings out some of the best work in Noise. They’re the client that wins us the most awards. They bring out the best in us.”
“They spur me on to push myself,” Mr. Seaman echoes. “It’s just a couple of different creative forces that all mesh together.”
And then there’s the letter Florida Rep received recently from playwright Tom Dudzick, who wrote this season’s “Miracle on South Division Street” (Feb. 5-March 2).
He wrote: “I came across Miracle artwork online today. I love it. Winking Mary and a barber pole for the ‘I.’ Oh man, it’s great. Really classy. Congratulations to your artistic staff.”