Theater and Stage Posters
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 "ChÃ¨rettes." 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...
- Design History
The history of the poster. Fascinating!
- Victoria and Albert Museum - Theater Posters
Another history with some wonderful illustrations.
- International Poster Gallery
A brief history of the poster.
- "Posters American Style"
An essay on American posters at the Smithsonian American Art site.
- SpeckyBoy.com "Musical Poster Designs"
A very interesting comparison between different versions of the same theater poster and alternate posters for the same shows. Not strictly theater posters, but check out his "50 Beautifully Designed Posters With Amazing Typography" while you're there
- Wikipedia Film Poster
A brief history.
- Reel Classics
A history of the film poster.
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.
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!
I have to love any book with "complete" in its title. You can't have too much Mucha.
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...
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...
I LOVE this image. A classic.
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.
- Yaneff.com History
A nice run down of the greatest poster artists through the art form's history. START HERE!
- The Mucha Foundation
The official website - featuring the work of Alphonse Mucha
- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
His (posthumous) website. Okay! A posthumous website devoted to him.
- MOMA Picasso Theater Poster
From the Museum of Modern Art collection.
- Commedia dell'Arte
A Lens on this historic style of Italian comedy... with some posters.
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?
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.
- James McMullen
Designer of many famous posters (some for Lincoln Center Theater), including for "Anything Goes" and Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia."
- Scott McKowen
Posters for Ontario's Shaw Festival.
Frank "Fraver" Verlizzo's website. Designer of posters for over 300 Broadway and Off-Broadway productions including "Sunday in the Park with George," "The Lion King," and "Sweeney Todd." Some of the best loved graphic designs in theatre history. He r
- Wieslaw Walkuski
Famous Polish theater poster artist. Poland has a vibrant poster art scene.
SullivanPerkins - award-winning designers for Kitchen Dog Theater's posters. Okay, I'm a member of Kitchen Dog so I'm partial, but I think their "Charm" poster is beautiful.
- Gilbert Lesser on ColorCubic.com
An evaluation of the design legacy of Gilbert Lesser - who designed, among many others, the poster for "Equus."
- David Hockney
The artists "Posters" page. Not just, but including, stage posters.
- David Hockney
A Squidoo Lens about the artist, showing several examples of his stage posters and designs.
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.
Filled with beautiful images. Also with the artists reflections on why he designed each poster as he did - an interesting book for graphic designers.
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.
Love this book.
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.)
The following show posters are all printed in an 11" x 17" format.
I love the bold graphics of this poster.
An unusual poster... an unusual show.
What a terrific drawing! Stylish (now)retro.
Boy is THIS an iconic poster design - using mainly text.
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!)
Even More Posters - Mini and Retro
Classic! Clever typography.
I love WPA designs and murals.
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.
- Playbill Store
The Off-Broadway poster for Nunsense... look for other shows here too.
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!
- Tutorial Lounge - Excellent Poster Design Tutorials
Like the name says, a selection of how-tos for designing posters yourself.
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:
Exactly! The theater poster is the first image the audience sees.
Some weird and wonderful things here.
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.
- The National Theatre
The poster archives of Britain's National Theatre - many available for purchase.
- Polish Poster Gallery
Some fascinating artwork - for sale.
- Lure Design
Strikingly graphic posters - for sale.
- Lava 360
An on-line collection of theatrical posters.
- The International Poster Center
A poster auction house.
Just in case you'd never heard of it. Some theater and film posters for sale.
- La Belle Epoque
Vintage all-kindsa posters source.
- Contemporary Posters
A gallery of theater posters from the Polish School - for sale.
- Free Classic Images
Downloads of vintage theater posters.
- Yaneff.com - Mucha Poster Gallery
A sales gallery with work by Mucha and others.
- Mucha Prints and Posters
A Squidoo Lens offering many works by Mucha.
- Lincoln Center Gallery
A gallery of posters from Lincoln Center shows.
- The Triton Gallery
A source for Broadway theater posters, current and rare vintage.
- The Federal Theater Project Collection
In 1974 George Mason University professor Lorraine Brown discovered the Federal Theatre Project Collection in a Library of Congress - it includes incredible drawings from the WPA era of costumes, sets, theaters themselves, and many theatrical posters
There are many passionate collectors of posters - and many of them also blog. Here's a sampling:
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.)
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?
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!