Designing The Audience image

Gerry Altenburg, Head of Wigs at the Stratford Festival, and actor Seana McKenna.

Scott McKowen is a renowned illustrator, art director, and graphic designer. He has created posters for the Shaw Festival, the Stratford Festival, the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, Yale Repertory Theatre, and the National Ballet of Canada among many others. He and his wife, costume and set designer Christina Poddubiuk (she designed The Light in the Piazza for Theatre Calgary last April) operate Punch & Judy Inc, a small design studio in Stratford, Ontario, and they often collaborate on concepts for theatre posters. Scott has designed the marketing materials for Theatre Calgary for the past eleven years – starting with Dennis Garnhum’s first season here in 2006-07. Our Artistic Associate, Jenna Turk, spoke with Scott about his process in developing the poster image for our production of The Audience.

When you begin a project, what do you consider first?

Marketing for anything other than theatre is relatively straightforward because you can “show the product.” We are usually at work on a theatre brochure more than a year before the production exists to be photographed – often before the casting or even the director is in place – so my job is always to distill the script down to a visual metaphor that tells the reader (the potential ticket buyer!) what the play is about.

Theatre Calgary’s poster for The Audience includes both a live subject (actor Seana McKenna) and found images (photographs of the Prime Ministers featured in the play), how did you decide to combine the two? What inspired this concept?

When Dennis Garnhum gave us his playbill to work on, Seana had already been contracted to play Her Majesty. Dennis wanted the image to feature his star, and his succinct direction was that he wanted the reader “instantly to recognize her as Queen Elizabeth.”

It was convenient that Stratford is home base both for McKenna and Punch & Judy (in fact, Christina and Seana have known each other since they were at the National Theatre School together some years ago). Gerry Altenburg, Head of Wigs at the Stratford Festival, had already been contracted to create Seana’s wigs for the Calgary production (built from scratch — hand-knotted hair by hair), and we arranged for Gerry to have one of them completed in time for our photo shoot.

Did you work with a photographer or anyone else on this project?

I have collaborated with David Cooper, one of Canada’s leading theatre and dance photographers, on all of our Theatre Calgary brochures. We have worked together for over thirty years at the Shaw Festival and at many other theatre companies on both sides of the border. David is based in Vancouver – we have shot Theatre Calgary images in his studio there, in Calgary, and in Niagara-on-the-Lake (where we both work for the  Shaw Festival). For this project we did the photography in our Punch & Judy studio in Stratford – Seana lives only a few blocks away, Christina styled the shot with costumes borrowed from the Stratford Festival warehouse, Gerry arrived with the wig styled to perfection, and we had the shot in less than twenty minutes.

What story is this image telling?

It seemed to me that the poster image for The Audience had to represent both the elected British Government (the Prime Ministers) and, obviously, the Sovereign. The poster for the London production did this brilliantly with a profile silhouette of the Queen (like the ones we’re familiar with seeing on postage stamps over the decades), combined with the front door of No. 10 Downing Street (a perfect solution for representing the office rather than any of the individual politicians who have occupied it). We had to find our own equation for this, obviously. In the silhouette, the jewels in the crown reminded me of miniature heads and shoulders – so I tried making a collage with historical photos of the Prime Ministers. I think it worked well – you don’t see them at first because they are all much smaller scale than Elizabeth. And that seems appropriate because she is still on the job long after they have all come and gone!