Much as the Avid changed editing both for better and for much, much worse (back in my ad days, we called it "the version machine"), desktop publishing has forever altered the messy terrain that is the 99-seat theater's lobby flyer table. Why use a boring old photo when you can add FIVE FILTERS in Photoshop...for FREE? Why use one or two fonts to tell your story when you can get all the fonts you want on the web...for FREE?!?
In fact, why worry about creating your own image at all, just lift some JPEG off the web, rez it up and call it a day? (Okay, okay, I'll admit it,
I've been I'm guilty of this one.)
The striking, solo image, simple, evocative, and laid out with taste and restraint, is getting harder and harder to find. Which is why, I guess, when I do find one, it's so striking.
The Center Theater Group's gorgeous flyer for Electricidad reminds me of the excellent images created by legendary illustrator/designer, Paul Davis. (Good WNYC interview with Davis here, where he also laments the piss-poor state of theater graphics.) John M. Valadez did the extraordinary illustration, and the designer knew enough to let it speak for itself. Great concept, beautiful execution.
Similarly, I really liked the piece for Ken Roht's Echo's Hammer, now playing at the Boston Court in Pasadena. At first I was miffed when I saw the flyer on the table: Ken is a good friend of mine, and for years, has come to me when he needs a flyer designed. In fact, in addition to being directly responsible for my pursuit of acting as art, it was Ken who got me started on the road to print design, some seven-odd years ago. (And I've heard similar stories of artistic awakening at the hand of Ken Roht from a number of people. I guess that kind of faith is to be expected from a choreographer who hires non-singing non-dancers to populate his kick-ass musicals, but still, it never ceases to amaze me.)
The illustration for Echo's Hammer by Iona Egg is simple and beautiful, and the piece itself was beautifully produced (crappy Internet rendering does it no justice, believe me). The nature of Ken's shows is very much the whole being greater than the sum of its already excellent parts; what I like about the illustration the designer chose for the show is that it isn't just a Photoshop collage of all the representative facets of the show, the art couple, the regular couple, the gigantic sculpture that's built over the course of the play, but one, simple, elegant image.
Sometimes, though, it's hard to find that image. Really, really hard. I don't usually throw down my own work as a good example of anything (except maybe the extraordinary open-mindedness of my clients), but I'm actually proud of my recent design for The Blacks and thought it might be interesting to examine why.
Typically, I'm under the gun with my designs for the Evidence Room. There are a few reasons for that: we usually choose our plays one at a time, which doesn't leave much time to let the ideas bubble up slowly from my deep, messy consciousness; also, I'm spread way too thin and free work (alas) usually ends up taking a way-back seat to commercial work and paid design work.
But we knew we were doing this production of the famous Jean Genet play last year; indeed, I'd been a part of two readings of The Blacks for director Lee Richardson starting two-and-a-half years ago (if the Crohn's wasn't a part of my life, I might even be in this particular show, but alas, the physical demands of this kind of ensemble work are too great for me nowadays). So obviously, I'd had Blacks on the brain for awhile.
Still, the image eluded me. It's a big, sprawling play with big, sprawling themes, including racism and class-ism, which make me distinctly uncomfortable (which, in turn, is exactly why we should be doing this play). But the tenor of the play is pretty gonzo: Jean Genet subtitled it "A Clown Show," after all, and rightly so.
I kept having this vague idea of an all-type treatment, but I wasn't completely sure whether it was because the idea of pickanninny art (that's "Black Americana" to you, boss) made my whitey-white skin crawl or because it was the right tool for the job. But other ideas started floating in, vaudeville and placard, specifically, and the capper came when my usual cohort in design crime at the theater also tossed out the idea of an all-type treatment. And when I mentioned the turn-of-the-century poster idea and he actually had a book in his possession with samples of just such a thing, well, it was Kismet.
Or The Blacks.
Which you should come to see, by the way. Because in the same way that true daring in design is often using less instead of more, addressing a simple, scary idea in theater can make for some gripping fucking drama.
THE BLACKS opens May 21 at the Evidence Room 2220 Beverly Blvd (at Alvarado) Los Angeles, CA 90057 Tickets on sale now: (213) 381-7118 evidenceroom.com