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Theater and Stage Posters

Updated on April 1, 2014

Graphic Art from the Theater - Top Twenty Posters

In theater (or "theatre" if you prefer), right after the first theater producer stood on a box to shout, "Come see our new play! Drama! Comedy! Romance! and Bloodshed!" the first scenic painter sketched up a sign. Which the first theater carpenter glued on a wall. (Someone else's wall.)

Thus the first theater poster was invented!

And as soon as none of these folks were looking, an audience member stole it off the wall as a souvenir.

Stage posters - décor for the theater lover.

Or the opera or dance lover. (Lots of good opera posters.) And even - not so very different - there are posters for the film lover.

Image from http://artfreebiesarchives.blogspot.com

The History of the Poster

Theater posters are probably as old as the idea of the poster, but they really blossomed as an art form during the Industrial Revolution, when lithographic printing was perfected and affordable. In Paris during the Belle Ãpoque (1880-1914) such posters were everywhere, a feature of the city. It was then that theater posters first became popular as decoration and memorabilia at home. When color printing developed (chromolithography), poster artists became even more popular and individually famous - like artist Jules Cheret, whose beautiful poster-girls (literal pin-up girls) were called "Chèrettes." More and more reputable artists started creating posters. Toulouse-Lautrec, for instance, created many famous ones - an important part of his career.

(For a more detailed account, it's hard to beat the following essay on "The History of the Poster" at the Design History site or the short history of the art form on the Victoria and Albert Museum site.)

Since that heyday, artists have continued to experiment with posters, including posters for the stage. (Artist David Hockney, for instance, has designed many opera posters.) Posters are an interesting genre - blending fine art, illustration, graphic art, advertising, and typography - so poster design attracts artists from each of those fields, for a lively cross-pollination of styles and ideas. All of which make posters a particularly rich and exciting contemporary art form.

The poster is also a supremely TIMELY and ephemeral art, designed to be used this one time for this one show, making them a sort of Limited Time Offer! art. Added to posters' artistic merit, their time-capsule quality and their commemoration of now vanished events (plus the inevitable rarity of a paper artifact surviving) make posters ideal collectibles.

Today, Broadway, London's West End, and other centers of theater continue to attract strongly designed show posters, but the physical theater poster is now only the cornerstone of a larger promotional package that may see that iconic image reshaped as fliers, ads, website images, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and on...

La Revue Blanche - by Toulouse-Lautrec
La Revue Blanche - by Toulouse-Lautrec

Historic Theater Poster Designers

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is only one of the Belle Epoque artists famous for theatrical or show posters. Some of his have become iconic - the one shown on the right is less well known.

Alphonse Marie Mucha is another very famous poster designer who created many theater posters like the one below, featuring the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt.

La Dame aux Camelias, poster by Edward Mucha
La Dame aux Camelias, poster by Edward Mucha

Alphonse Marie Mucha designing a poster for the Divine Sarah on stage.

Starting with Sarah Bernhardt, other female stars were immortalized by posters (and made popular and SOLD TICKETS). Some of the most beautiful posters ever. Yvette Guibert, Eugenie Buffet, Camille Stefani, Jane Avril, La Goulue, and Loie Fuller were some of the actresses who graced the theater posters of the day.

Mucha's Theater Posters

Alphonse Mucha is one of the greatest poster artists from one of the greatest periods for this art form. Gorgeous Art Nouveau images!

Alphonse Mucha: The Complete Posters and Panels (A Hjert & Hjert book)
Alphonse Mucha: The Complete Posters and Panels (A Hjert & Hjert book)

I have to love any book with "complete" in its title. You can't have too much Mucha.

 
Medee Giclee Print Giclee Poster Print by Alphonse Mucha, 12x36
Medee Giclee Print Giclee Poster Print by Alphonse Mucha, 12x36

Sarah Bernhardt (THE diva) as Medea. A wonderfully dramatic image. (Wish this photo was bigger.) One of my favs.

 

Classic Theater Posters - (Or posters OF classics?)

Some very striking images here. Imagine Hamlet over an actor's sofa...

Zombie Shakespeare (Alas Poor Yorick) Art Poster Print - 24x36 Poster Print, 24x36
Zombie Shakespeare (Alas Poor Yorick) Art Poster Print - 24x36 Poster Print, 24x36

Sorry, this is just funny: I once taught a kids' theater class and, when asked to design a set for Hamlet, one kid added in a fence.

"Why the fence?" I asked.

"To keep the zombies out of the castle."

The young designer knew that lots of characters died... but not that they Left the Stage. He thought Polonius and Ophelia hung around as zombies. A cool idea, actually...

 
The Mikado - Gilbert and Sullivan
The Mikado - Gilbert and Sullivan

A poster for the Doyle Carte company playing Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado

Vintage (ish) Theater Poster Designers

Well, dead anyway. Websites devoted to 'em.

The Wizard of Oz (believe public domain image)
The Wizard of Oz (believe public domain image)

See More Vintage Stage Posters

Look here at Buzzfeed (click the pic) for more handsome vintage stage posters.

The theater poster used to be THE prime method to advertise a show - especially a traveling show. An advance-man would travel to the next town to put up posters a few days before the theater troupe arrived to perform. Nowadays we'd use Twitter I guess.

These posters are more fun to look at though.

I particularly like this Wizard of Oz poster - mostly because it's pre-The Movie. It's almost impossible not to visualize the film now when you just hear the title Wizard of Oz, isn't it?

The Modern stage poster below, though, I love... partly because the play's title means nothing to me at first (the poster offers wonderfully teasing suggestions of what it might be about) and partly 'cause it's so dang gorgeous. i have this one hung up at home.

Do you see both images?

"Charm" at Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas, designed by SullivanPerkins
"Charm" at Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas, designed by SullivanPerkins

Kitchen Dog Theater, "Charm" by Susan Cahill

poster copyright 2011 SullivanPerkins, designer David Braddock

Here's a practical idea for other theater companies to borrow: Kitchen Dog has a sweetheart deal with their talented ad agency designers because (KD being a place doing creative work) they let their ad designers also have REAL creative freedom... resulting in work the designers find enjoyable and rewarding and award winning too. The lesson? If you haven't money to reward your supporters, reward them with the intangibles that theater is so rich in: true creativity, freedom, imagination, and (occasionally) deserved fame!

Theater Poster Designers

Websites for a sampling of theater poster artists.

Scott McKowen

The scratchboard illustrations of Scott McKowen are just beautiful - and include many posters for Ontario's Shaw Festival. This is a book I HAD TO own.

A Fine Line: Scratchboard Illustrations by Scott McKowen
A Fine Line: Scratchboard Illustrations by Scott McKowen

Filled with beautiful images. Also with the artists reflections on why he designed each poster as he did - an interesting book for graphic designers.

 

James McMullen

The theater posters of James McMullen are deservedly famous - and here's a whole book full of them! (Another book I own and love.) Inspirational.

Broadway Melody
Broadway Melody

Okay, this is a FILM poster, but the film is about Broadway, shouldn't that count? Anyway, it's a heck of a lot of fun with it's dancing chorus girls.

(Click on the Pic to visit a site all about the film.)

Mini Posters

The following show posters are all printed in an 11" x 17" format.

My Fair Lady (Broadway) 11 x 17 Poster - Style A
My Fair Lady (Broadway) 11 x 17 Poster - Style A

What a terrific drawing! Stylish (now)retro.

 
West Side Story Poster Broadway Theater Play 11x17 MasterPoster Print, 11x17
West Side Story Poster Broadway Theater Play 11x17 MasterPoster Print, 11x17

Boy is THIS an iconic poster design - using mainly text.

 
Fiddler on the Roof (Broadway) 11 x 17 Poster - Style A
Fiddler on the Roof (Broadway) 11 x 17 Poster - Style A

I think this is beautiful. It reminds me a little of a Chagal...

 

Poster Frames 11" x 17"

All those cool mini-posters? That 11" x 14" format?

Well, I have personally hunted ALL OVER for frames that size! They are hard to find.

This frame here is the right size. Very handsome in cherry. Classy. Seems perfect.

(And so much easier than the build-yer-own-frame kit I ended up with!)

Off-Broadway Posters

It's much harder to find posters for Off-Broadway or Regional or local theater shows. The best way is to buy a poster (or other memorabilia) in the theater lobby right THEN, when you see the show, but some shows may sell merchandise from their website.

Here's one other possible source: Playbill! The guys that print the program sometimes print or sell posters too, occasionally even Off-Broadway ones like Nunsense.

Poster by Anupama Rao
Poster by Anupama Rao

A killer example poster in a deliberately coarse screen-printed style from the website below. This poster by author: Anupama Rao

(I haven't found a way to contact her for permission, but am hoping this use with linkage and credit will be okay. Ms. Rao?)

Tutorials On Poster Design

This is a fascinating site with a wealth of terrific graphics. Visit for the how-to goodness or the shiny pictures!

Books About Theater Posters

What fun is a hobby or collection without a lot of good books to read about it in?

Here are a sampling of interesting texts:

The Show Starts on the Street
The Show Starts on the Street

Exactly! The theater poster is the first image the audience sees.

 
100 Poster Masterpieces From Underground Theatre
100 Poster Masterpieces From Underground Theatre

Some weird and wonderful things here.

 
Androcles and the Lion - George Bernard Shaw
Androcles and the Lion - George Bernard Shaw

There is a lot of social as well as theater history in collecting stage posters. This particular one - with wording almost unthinkable today - was paid for with tax money through WPA arts programs.

Galleries, Collections, Libraries, and Sources of Theater Posters

Great places to see (and sometimes buy) posters once used to advertise live theater.

Poster Blogs

There are many passionate collectors of posters - and many of them also blog. Here's a sampling:

Mary Pickford film poster
Mary Pickford film poster

This was a play first, then a movie. There are some very beautiful film posters.

(Click on the Pic to visit a site on the history of advertising posters.)

Sources for Movie Posters

Okay, okay! Time moved on, so did technology, and live theater was joined by that canned stuff - the movies. Posters went along for this march-of-progress ride. Here are a few movie posters - original and reproductions. Great graphics!

Books About Film Posters

If you love old posters, books make it possible to own examples you could never get your hands on! (Or find enough wall space for either.)

A Century of Movie Posters: From Silent to Art House
A Century of Movie Posters: From Silent to Art House

What a great way to survey all the changes in graphics and type over the period.

 

What kind of theater do you like best?

Broadway (or BIG Theater) or Little Theater?

See results

This Lens is a work in progress and always will be, but like in Theater, whether you're finished or not (you never are) sometimes it's time for the Opening!

What Poster are You looking For? Comments:

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    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 4 years ago

      @anonymous: I replied by email - but all I can really suggest is patient, persistent searching. Good luck!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      i am looking for a poster from cleo camping emmanuelle and dick national theatre 1998

      reply to kevin.gilbert44@hotmail.co.uk

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @sukkran trichy: Thank you - and thanks for visiting.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 5 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      great poster collection. i love it.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @ShoppingWithMonty: Thanks for mentioning Privat-Livemont because I wasn't familiar with his work by name. Beautiful!

    • ShoppingWithMonty profile image

      ShoppingWithMonty 5 years ago

      Love vintage theatre advertising posters and use them as inspiration for my own artwork! Really admire Alphonse Mucha and Henri Privat-Livemont.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      was hoping you had some polls on this one too.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 6 years ago

      @LouiseKirkpatrick: Those artists in particular - fantastic images! I have a repro Chat Noir by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen that I love. Tghanks for visiting!

    • LouiseKirkpatrick profile image

      LouiseKirkpatrick 6 years ago from Berkshire, United Kingdom

      I have a small collection of reproduction theatre and advertising posters, mostly by Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha. I think it's a gorgeous art form!