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My Life in the Theater

By James McMullan
(Print, May/June 1988)

A renowned illustrator talks about his experience as a designer of theatrical posters— a demanding specialty which he’s made his own.


Ever since I learned how to rotate a chisel-edge brush in the 10th grade, I have loved doing posters. Of course, what I was doing then was show-card lettering for the local butcher shop, but I still felt that spacing out words like “ground round” or placing the dollar sign in exactly the right place trained sensibilities that one day would be called upon to evoke spirit as well as flesh. Sure enough, I eventually moved from pork cutlet to Cole Porter, and now on the buses of New York City, I get to keep analyzing my spacing on the words “Anything Goes.” Actually, not that much has really changed since the butcher shop days and I still have a tendency to get a bit crowded on the last few letters.

Despite the imperfectness of my spacing, I have been lucky enough to get to do a fair number of  theatrical posters, beginning with Comedians for producer Alexander Cohen in 1976, and continuing with my current posters for Lincoln Center. I use the word lucky because in the area of theatrical graphics, luck has a lot to do with it. The theater is not strongly connected to the world of graphic design or illustration and it is as much through familiarity as through reputation that people get chosen to design posters for plays and musicals. I was lucky to be recommended to Alex Cohen by Paul Davis; I was lucky to have avoided, for the most part, the “seven sketch system” of the big theatrical advertising agencies, and I was lucky to have had my Comedians poster remembered by Bernard Gersten, the executive producer at Lincoln Center.

The seven sketch system, by the way, is utilized when an agency takes a modest fee (let’s say $2000), which would barely pay for the time to develop one good idea, and splits that fee among several artists so that a producer can have a choice of seven ideas instead of just one. The theory behind this system is that one can take the best details of seven mediocre sketches and make out of them one good sketch. It is always preferable in this arrangement to have one or two agency employees compete against the free-lance talent so as to ensure that whatever concept the producer has can be rendered in the most sycophantic manner possible.

My own experience with this system came when I was commissioned by the Ash LeDonne agency to do a sketch for the musical Working. At this time, I had already done the posters for Comedians, Anna Christie and I Remember Mama, and so I presumed that the producer of Working would want me to come up with my own metaphor for the play. I was a little surprised when at the initial meeting at the agency, Stephen Schwartz, the director, said that he was planning to have part of the play scenery spell out the word WORKING in different kinds of buildings—factories, skyscrapers, shops—where people work and that it would be nice if the poster contained the same building/letters. I said that it sounded like a great idea for the set, but that since the poster was a vertical rectangle and the word WORKING turned into different buildings had to be a very horizontal idea, it posed a fundamental problem of design. Schwartz seemed reluctant to accept this as a reason to drop the idea, but as the meeting ended, we agreed that I would investigate his lettering notion and also come up with an alternative concept.

No amount of tipping or squeezing the letters on my part resulted in an acceptable building/word design and I finally abandoned Schwartz’s proposal. The material of the play itself, based on Studs Terkel’s book, was rich in 1930s muralistic possibilities and I had a good time coming up with a kaleidoscope of working figures with the title repeated in bold letters both top and bottom. I never got a chance to give my reasons to Schwartz personally, since the sketch got swallowed up in the maw of the agency and the next thing I knew, an awful, obviously agency-generated piece of artwork appeared in the newspapers. In it, the letters had been dutifully turned into structures, albeit very small and pinched structures, that sat along the bottom of the space like the wreckage of an ocean liner that had settled at the bottom of the sea. The play closed in a week.

The Working experience shows one kind of problem that arises in theater design: Everybody is an artist and an expert and often will not leave design to the designers. On a subtle level, however, this story also shows how the advertising agency can intrude on one of the best aspects of artists coming together on a project: the possibility of dialogue. I didn’t get a chance to argue my position with Schwartz because my sketch was treated as something that had to go through channels or into committee. I don’t think the theater works very well when it pretends that it can use a hierarchical approval system like IBM or Citicorp. Maybe those big companies suffer from committee decisions, too, but in the theater, where every decision can affect the life or death of the play, it is particularly disastrous to lose touch with the intuitive sensibility.

I enjoy designing for the theater when I have direct, face-to-face meetings with the producers who actually make the decisions. It is then that the quality of the theater as a small, personal community works best for me. This way of cooperating acknowledges that we are all artists doing the best we can with the strength of our instincts and our enthusiasms. Decisions are made by a consensus that emerges out of seemingly disconnected talk.


With Alex Cohen, I have always worked directly, and at Lincoln Center, a group of four, including Gregory Mosher, the artistic director; Bernie Gersten; Jim Russek, the principal of the advertising agency, and myself, have managed—so far—to find an always shifting but productive way of resolving the posters. I suspect that part of what makes it work is that we are all enthusiastic verbalizers, which means that we can have a 45-minute meeting in which we all get to say a lot about the play and almost nothing about images. I escape without ever having to commit myself to a real idea and can go back to the studio a free man.

What I am free for is usually to imagine a central idea of the play as a gesture of one of its characters. I don’t always take this metaphorical route, but most of the time a specific body movement is the armature on which I build the other elements. Usually, this gesture comes to me as a strong, intuitive mental picture. The image of the reporter yelling into the phone in the Front Page poster, for example, needed to be twisting back as he sat on the table; not rationally, of course, but in my mind’s eye. I remember Jerry Zaks, the director, looking at the sketch and asking why we couldn’t just crop in on the head and the phone. I growled the growl I reserve for people who meddle with the body language of my posters, and he understood that he had touched something primal. We have had a smooth working relationship ever since.

Once I get this gesture in focus, I can usually make a rough drawing of how I see it, which serves as the basis for taking photographs of a model. Sometimes, when I work with the model, particularly if the model is an actor, my original idea becomes modified in some way. In Death and the King’s Horseman, for instance, I always saw the figure reaching upward with a kind of ceremonial gravity, but it took working with two different people, a dancer and an actor, to find out specifically how to do it. As can be seen from the posters and sketches, I found several different kinds of reaching. The process in this poster is also a good example of how much the gesture becomes entangled with questions of simplification, color, and the attack in the drawing. In this poster, my sudden inspiration to use opaque color to produce an electric blue line changed everything else; the color became darker, the forms much flatter, and the general feeling more calligraphic.

Using models to produce photographic reference means more to me than getting information. I feel that I’m making a small production of my own and that by choosing people, costuming, them, and directing them to act out these little tableaux, I have actually created some new information in the world. When I don’t go through this process—and I always dread the complications of finding people and setting up the modeling session—and end up working with existing reference, it feels more like recycling someone else’s vision of the world. Occasionally, this forces me to be extremely inventive in order to transform the original material.

The relationship with Lincoln Center has been very good in providing me with first-rate actors to work out the figures for my designs, but there is another way in which the connection has been fortunate. Lincoln Center doesn’t want all its posters to look alike, and I, luckily enough, can’t seem to respond to two different scripts in a stylistically consistent way. Although I begin most of my work with the idea of a gesture, and use watercolor, in one form or another, as the medium, what interests me is to allow the subject matter to provoke different esthetic and metaphorical inventions. I see the Lincoln Center posters as an opportunity to feel out the range of my approach to imagery and also to express the basic motifs that exist in my work. So far, friends who talk to me about it are either interested that the posters can look as different as they do or are skeptical that I have a “vision” at all. I think that when more posters have been done, the underlying connections will be apparent. I don’t really want to be stuck in the idea of a “McMullan” poster, but on the other hand, it would be nice if people were able to see that the artist who did The Front Page poster also did Anything Goes.

Meantime, I am happy to be working on three new posters, two for Lincoln Center, The Road and Speed-the-Plow, and Bright Lights for Alex Cohen. Who knows? Maybe in these efforts I will finally work out the spacing in my lettering. Or maybe I will discover type.

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