Friday, February 27, 2009

My Postcard Theories

[NOTE: I originally posted this on the Theatre Tribe group. That group seems to be on the verge of deletion, so I thought I would move it over here.]

I'm not sure if this holds true for the rest of the world, but in Los Angeles the first line of marketing is the postcard.

Postcards are ubiquitous in Los Angeles. They advertise plays, acting schools, nightclubs, taxi services, raves, escorts ... if it can be bought, sold, consumed or otherwise experienced, chances are there's a postcard advertising it. The upside of this is the ease and affordability of having mass quantities of high-quality postcards printed. The downside is the sheer volume of postcard static.

So the trick is to cut through that static, and create within the potential audience member a desire to go to the theatre. And we all know how difficult that can be, even when you’re not in direct competition with clubs and escorts.A couple of years ago I began collecting postcards, specifically those advertising theatrical events. I looked for consistent features across the array of postcards in my collection in an attempt to determine what works and what doesn’t. This wasn’t a very scientific survey, but I believe my conclusions are valid enough to share:

  • Resolution is vitally important. If the postcard is all aliased or fuzzy, it looks cheap and unprofessional.
  • There must be some sort of graphic representation of the show. Text-only postcards do not have the impact that a picture has. You would think this is obvious! Just as you find in really bad PowerPoint presentations, some people just like to throw a bunch of words at their audience.
  • This representation should communicate the mood/spirit/theme/approach of the show in a compelling and interesting way.
  • It is preferable for this representation to give the viewer a human connection. I'm partial to a photograph of the cast that invites the viewer into the scene.
  • If you have a choice between a list of actors or a synopsis of the play, CHOOSE THE SYNOPSIS OF THE PLAY. This goes double for new works. Unless you have a marketable asset in the play (Val Kilmer is Moses!) a list of actors will not bring people to the show. No one will care who is in the show until they've seen the show. At that point, they'll have the actors' bio in the program and their 8 x 10's in the lobby to gaze upon.


Above is the postcard front for "Pin-Up Girls," shot by local burlesque photographer Chris Beyond. I selected the location for this shoot and did the set dressing. I placed the actresses, and "directed" them off camera as Mr. Beyond snapped away. There are a number of dirty tricks in this picture:

  • The mirrors in the background add cavernous depth to an otherwise claustrophobic scene. This taken together with the soft lighting creates a womb-like (read: "inviting") environment.
  • The three figures on the right are focused on a postcard. The figure on the left is lost in thought. There's a huge mystery in this scene.
  • We're peering over the shoulder of the actress holding the postcard as she's turned away. We only see the back of the far right actress' head. This contributes to the mystery.
  • The entire scene is vignetted, meaning there is a dark border around the central image. This contributes to the womb-like environment, and hopefully casts an "old-timey" feel over the picture.
  • As mysterious as the picture is, there are patches of color, feathers, and fur in the shot. It is a play about burlesque, after all!
This picture turned out perfectly considering how deliberately set up it is. But I should point out that of all the photos Mr. Beyond shot for this postcard, only two accomplished what I hoped for (through no fault of the photographer, I should add).

And here's the back. I have had audience members come up to me and thank me for putting a synopsis of the show on the postcard! The decision to forgo actors names on the postcard has been firm company policy for Theatre Unleashed since the getgo.

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