This week, we interviewed Mitch Stark from Theatre Avenue. Mitch is a poster and projection designer for theatrical shows. He shares the insights he’s gained from 7 years designing for theatre companies nationwide, for productions such as ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, ‘The Wizard of Oz’, ‘Annie’, ‘Seussical the Musical’, ‘Charlotte’s Web’, and beyond.
In this interview, Mitch discusses theatre posters and marketing, art licensing, and his thoughts on how to elevate your show through digital scenic projections.
Can you tell us about Theatre Avenue?
I like to think of Theatre Avenue as a place where art and theatre meet.
Theatre Avenue is a design studio for theatrical productions: We paint digital projections for shows and design posters and flyers for marketing.
We all love theatre here! We believe in the power of storytelling to touch people’s hearts. And we believe that any show of any size, anywhere, can have an impact. That’s what I love most about what we do. We make professional, digital design available to every theatre program, big or small. Which means that now, a school or community theatre group can achieve the stage magic your audience would experience at a much bigger show. Every show can be wonderful!
Can you discuss licensing and how that affects your posters and projections?
This is one of the ways we make your life easier. Licensing can be less than fun to think about, when it comes to poster design, or images, especially if you don’t have a particular passion for all things legal. I know theatre groups have to be very careful to comply with all the legal fine print, or risk penalties.
For example, when you use imagery off the web and assume it’s okay. I get it, limited budget and limited time, etc. But you do have to be careful. Licensing agreements are typically very clear about not using copyrighted material without permission. So just because other companies have used the classic illustration of Cosette for their Les Mis poster, doesn’t mean you should.
We create original posters, with unique logos and artwork—you can have something striking and professional without copyright issues. Just send us your info and we’ll send you a hundred poster prints. It’s like having an in-house theatre design shop without the heavy overhead.
When it comes to projected backdrops, the same rules apply. As tempting as it may be, projecting scenes and backgrounds you pulled from a Google image search can get you in hot water legally, and usually the pictures you find aren’t high quality, and aren’t able to provide the storytelling cues you need. Which is a huge reason we love painting original artwork, specifically designed to fit your scenic vision.
We love your posters! Can you explain why it’s important to have quality promotional material to promote shows?
Thank you! Michael J. Fox once said when describing poster art that “it’s not just an ad, but in many ways the first few notes of the piece.” A poster is so important. It’s often the first thing your audience sees about your play and it sends a message. Will this show be magical, or is it just ordinary? Is it vibrant and alive, or sort of stale and mediocre? Believe it or not, your poster projects all this and much more. You may have a wonderful production with great actors, well thought out staging and set pieces, lovely costumes—but if your poster art is lackluster or poorly designed, you’re going to lose people’s attention and interest from the start. Most directors would say they want something striking, original, and beautiful—a work of art. But they often don’t believe they can afford it, or they don’t have the time, connections, or resources to make it happen. That’s one of the problems we’re solving. If you could partner with a professional theatre design firm in a way that doesn’t sink half your budget, it would change the game. You want to stand out. You want to be original. You want to say with that initial 11×17 poster that your show is going to be really special. That’s what draws an audience, and keeps them coming back. That kind of care and professional attention to detail. Like John Lasseter of Pixar said, “Quality is the best business plan.”
You recently started designing projections. What are the best ways to use projections?
You know, that’s what’s great about projections. There is no one ‘best way’ to utilize them. It’s one of the things I admire most about theatre directors. They are so creative and resourceful—they are finding incredibly original ways of using them. Some directors have set up a projector behind a screen on stage and project from the back, which produces a bright, vivid, unobstructed image. Others use built-in projectors in auditoriums or schools and project from the front. And just recently I’ve seen more directors exploring space outside of the stage—above, from the side, finding a way to get as many actors on stage as possible, but still using projection to represent the mood of the scene.
A general suggestion I would give is to treat your projection as another light element in your show. A very sophisticated light, but one that in some scenes may dominate, while other lights will need to be dialed down. It really depends on your lighting needs in each scene. The brighter your projector is, the better, and you’ll need a screen, whether it’s built, rented, or bought. And then using a basic laptop, put projections in a slideshow in Powerpoint or Keynote, and you’re off and running.
How do projections affect the overall feel of a show?
Projected backdrops transport the audience like nothing I’ve ever seen. They paint a mood instantly, in a way that traditional backdrops often cannot. They allow for moving elements, video elements, and mood/color shifts. You can build in rain, snow, fire, day/night gradation and other animated effects.
Projections can also be painted in a range of styles, from something very light and cartoonish to something completely photo realistic. And they can powerfully punctuate moments in a story. For example, imagine yourself directing “The Lion King, Jr.” We have a projection called ‘Hot Sunrise’ that is one of our most popular; it’s a simple animation of a sun slowly rising that spans the course of the opening song. When you see this brilliant wash of color fill the cyclorama, it brings your scene to life—suddenly it feels like Broadway. Artistically, there are no limitations. Your vision can be more fully realized than before—on the same budget. I love working with school directors and drama teachers. Their ideas are wonderful and moving, and they have a magical ability to bring theatre to life on a shoestring budget. They want their students to have a great experience. So it’s incredibly fulfilling, that moment when students see a projection fill the screen behind them for the first time during tech week, and they gasp—just like the audience will opening night. It elevates everyone’s game and makes the whole experience something to really remember.
What do theatres need to use projection backdrops?
You just need a projector, a screen (which can be built for under $100, rented or bought) a laptop, and the cables to connect everything. And of course the artwork itself. And that’s it. No heavy equipment, pulleys, fly space, expensive physical drops, or countless hours painting something that may or may not really set the scene like you hoped. Plus, you get seamless, fade-in, blackout, or instant transitions from scene to scene.
How does the cost of projections compare to physical backdrops or building a set?
It’s way, way cheaper to do projections. To rent a physical backdrop not only do you need a fly system equipment and fly space, you will also spend up to $500 per drop, per week. And that’s for traditional, simple drops. At Theatre Avenue, for $200, you will receive 4 projections, and retain the files forever, for any repeat performances you may do in the future.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
What I really want people to know is that we can’t wait to hear about your next production! Tell us your vision, what you’re hoping for, dreaming about—share your groundbreaking interpretation, or just a sincere moment or scene you’d like to have in your show. We LOVE working with directors to make something unforgettable, and often that starts with closing your eyes, allowing yourself to imagine your show with no limits or rules, then writing it down and believing it can happen. And then sending us an email of course. 🙂
You can check out Theatre Avenue for poster and projection backdrops at TheatreAve.com. Also, follow them on Twitter @theatreavenue or on Facebook at facebook.com/theatreavenue. If you have questions for Mitch, please ask in the comments below.