I still have posters from my college theater productions decorating the walls of my apartment. They have tremendous sentimental value, obviously, these relics of my youth in another century. And some of them are lovely in and of themselves – an arresting floating picture frame image, for instance, for my freshman year production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But they are what they are – posters whipped up by student volunteers, for whom enthusiasm for the work was the main prerequisite, and artistic acumen a useful bonus. They’re endearing amateur works.
And compared to the graphic designs I’m seeing for off-off Broadway projects these days, they’re freaking Rembrandts.
I don’t know exactly what has happened, but over the past two years or so I’ve noticed an alarming decline in the quality of the graphic design for independent theater. At least here in New York, the postcards, Facebook banners, and other promotional images have all started to look hideous. They’ve become sloppy jumbles of blurry headshots and text so small it’s almost impossible for me to read it, printed in a chaotic session of fonts better suited to church fliers from the mid 80s. There’s no obvious imagery at all, much less imagery that’s connected to the show’s plot or themes. And while the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” phrase leaps to mind, the whole reason for these graphics to exist is to sell their shows, to get the attention of a public faced with hundreds of theatrical options at any given time. We know full well our books are being judged by their covers, like it or not. So why are we creating the ugliest covers imaginable?
I’m sure part of it stems from the ready availability of printing and graphics software which we have today. It would be nice to think that such easy availability of technology would allow all of us to create beautiful images, or at least useful and marketable ones. But unfortunately, giving us all the power to draw doesn’t automatically impart the knowledge of how to draw. Same goes for lettering, graphic layout, and so on. The software has given more and more of us the power to make crap.
But there’s more going on than that, since so much of the crap I’m seeing looks exactly the same. And I think it has something to do with the realities of theatrical production these days. Specifically, the fact that so many of the opportunities that exist for independent theater nowadays focus on festivals, nights of ten-minute one acts, and other occasions where multiple works are being performed. That means six or eight separate productions for each event – and at some point, we’ve decided that the complete information for each one needs to be crammed onto the poster.
I get it – we all want acknowledgement for the work we do. But there’s a tipping point – if everybody demands equal billing, if we have to list the names of every dramaturg and assistant director and props manager in equal font size with everybody else, then the promotional materials become unreadable. And if the materials become unreadable, it stands to reason that nobody will read them. Which means nobody knowing about, or caring about, our work. And yet, this “me too” mindset seems to have become so ingrained in the indie theater mindset, that we’d rather these materials be unreadable to the general public, than risk showing the slightest amount of disrespect to anybody within our insular circle of friends. I mentioned that the fonts being used remind me of mid 80s church fliers, and indeed the whole aesthetic of modern indie theater promotional materials seems to be that of a church bulletin board – and we’re only preaching to the choir here.
This isn’t working.
We’re trying to make ourselves known, and getting our work to the attention of the widest audience possible, and actively sabotaging our ability to do so.
So, graphics folks, feel free to treat me with disrespect. Apart from spelling my name right and putting in that little AEA asterisk when necessary, you can make the typeface as small as yourself. And don’t worry about a one-inch square smudge that’s supposed to be my headshot. A little crawl of names on the bottom margin is just fine, as long as you’ve used the rest of the space to create a promotional image that actually works. That looks good. That fits the show.
Come on. The actors, writers, directors and designers around you are making enormous sacrifices for the sake of their art. Honor it, and up your game. At least give it the old college try.
Posted on September 18, 2017
by Michael C. O'Day