I opened my email today and received an e-blast from a theatre company advertising their upcoming production. I was horrified by the publicity image they used. It was so beyond mediocre that I wouldn't even consider seeing the show. But it did prompted me to write about the importance of good theatre publicity stills.
I'm not one to rag on other photographers. This post is not about that at all. I will leave the name of the company and the photographer out. My message is to theatre companies. This post is about learning to recognize why quality theatre publicity photographs are important and appreciating what excellent publicity stills can do for your theatre company.
I'm a unique photographer. Not only have I been shooting theatre for 28 years, but during my career I have been the Marketing Director of a regional musical theatre company and created and developed advertising campaigns for many arts organizations, both large and small.
Why did the e-blast image upset me?
Ask yourself this: Is the quality of a publicity image representative of the quality of a production? The answer is probably no. But, it is the first thing the public sees about an upcoming production (whether that be stage, film, or TV). And, it is what will lure your audience in. So, if the image is sub-par, or unrelated to the production, patron interest will dwindle or be non-existent.
Advice from a pro
The greatest advice I ever got was from the legendary Lile O. Cruse, who founded the regional musical theatre company where I worked for 11 years. He said to me, "You can put any shit on stage, as long as the publicity is spectacular."
What I took away from his tongue-in-cheek remark was just how important the first impression you give your potential audience is. You want to entice and draw them in with beautiful, emotionally evocative imagery. What you put out in the world, pre-show, speaks volumes about your company.
If you have slick, well-crafted brochures, ads, posters, social media, etc., people will expect that same quality will be on stage – that the company as a whole is professional – from the stage to the printed poster. In most cases, your photography is a HUGE part of that quality product.
Publicity images for Cabrillo Stage's RENT in 2018, ©Jana Marcus.
Spend the money
Often, many small theatre companies don't include photography in their budget. They think their Marketing Manager can take the image. Or, even worse, that anyone hanging around the theatre with an iPhone can take a snap for PR purposes. All of these concepts are huge mistakes, which I can guarantee will be felt at the box office.
The old saying "you have to spend money to make money" is so true in this situation. Find some budget! A typical 2-hour publicity shoot can cost between $300 - $600. That's a small price to pay when your pre-show imagery is well done and has the public curious and excited to see your show – and it sells out!
I once photographed and marketed a show that was horrible in both script and staging. But I took to heart the words of my old mentor, Mr. Cruse, and the marketing materials and photography sold that show out before it opened.
A good, professional photographer experienced in theatre imagery, and/or marketing and commercial work, can evoke a mood to meet your creative concept of marketing a show – or help you develop one. Big theatre companies may have a creative team that comes up with the initial concepts that a photographer then brings to life. These people are professionals who will create something unique for a production. Even if an idea is an appropriation of something done on Broadway, it will never be like the original, and hence become its own, unique piece of artwork.
Many times production shots are used for publicity, especially on Broadway, when the show has enough previews to capture the production photographically to be used for promotion.
Current theatre publicity image for Cabrillo Stage's Into The Woods, 2019. ©Jana Marcus.
What makes a good theatre photographer?
Remember, not every photographer is a theatre photographer. Like other genres of photography, shooting theatre is a craft – not only in capturing the light correctly, but in understanding how a theatre production works, the pacing of entrances and exits, and most importantly, when actors breathe, capturing the power of a moment. It's essential that a photographer capture in a single image the story of the show.
Often photographers are brought in one night only to shoot. If possible, give them the option of seeing a rehearsal beforehand. That way, they will be prepared to capture the best moments of your production.
Still from the 2007 production of Little Shop of Horrors at Cabrillo Stage. ©Jana Marcus.
One time, I shot beautiful production photos of a show, which were sent to the papers for review articles. One newspaper insisted on sending their own photographer to capture a rehearsal shot. When the image ran in the paper I laughed a good belly laugh – it was out of focus and overexposed! Again, theatre photography is a specialty.
In conclusion, I wish there was more respect for the art of good theatre photography. Photos are a company's golden resource – for advertising, for future campaigns, for reviews, for the history of the company. Don't chintz on this valuable resource. Sell more tickets with a well thought out and photographed campaign for your next show!
PS - here's the image from my email that set off this entire post. See what I mean?
Top montage images: Hedwig Broadway poster, publicity still for Cabrillo Stage's Cabaret and poster image for Actors' Theatre RED, both by Jana Marcus, and Chicago movie poster.