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Anatomy of a show poster: The Arabian Nights

posted by Cheshire Isaacs on Mon, Nov 24, 2008
in Backstage buzz

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Sometimes the design for a show poster comes together very quickly: we have an idea, it gets approved, and the finished image is completed within days. Other times, however, the process can take weeks, such as was the case for The Arabian Nights. Here's how we arrived at the final image.

Anytime I begin a design, it's at least two months before the show goes into previews. Frequently, all I have to go on is the script and a conversation with the director, who may or may not have concrete ideas about how he or she is going to approach the play. The lighting, scenic, and costume designs are usually still being finalized. The play is mostly cast by that time, but the actors aren't necessarily local. On top of all that, even if the director can communicate a strong vision for the show, it may not translate into a strong vision for the poster, which needs to grab your attention and get you to investigate further. The poster probably won't sell any tickets on its own, but it should get you to look at our website or call us up.

With this show, we had a couple of additional factors from the start: the title and the writer/director, Mary Zimmerman. Anytime I design a poster for a show with a recognizable name, such as The Arabian Nights, I have a certain flexibility with the logo of the show. I can play with the legibility of the words a bit, because the viewer will go along with me more easily.

The title can also be a liability; one can easily fall into a cliché and rely on a typeface that evokes Arabic writing, such as Disney's Aladdin.

I wanted to go a different direction and do my own lettering. I looked up antique Islamic/Arabic calligraphy and found square Kufic script, which originated around the time of the earliest incarnations of the 1,001 Nights stories. I decided to riff off that look and came up with this:

logo draft

Did I say I had leeway to make a logo that's hard to read? Not that much leeway. Fortunately, once I did lowercase letters rather than capitals, people felt the title was much more legible:

logo draft

Still, people felt that the logo was a little cold. I had reactions from people saying they thought the letters looked futuristic, mazelike, hip-hoppish, and even like this Jesus logo, apparently a common piece of folk art I'd never seen before. It wasn't important to me that people get the Kufic reference; I just like having the deeper layer. But I was happy to hear that one of our staff members, someone who spent many years in Saudi Arabia, got the reference right away.

Anyway, I connected it a little more to the subject matter by giving it a bit of ornamentation. Everyone was happy, and I was done:

Arabian Nights logo

Now it was on to the poster image. After reading the script, I decided that rather than showing a scene from any particular story in the show, I wanted to highlight Scheherezade and the power of storytelling itself. (A brief synopsis of the play, in case you don't know the story: Scheherezade is a young queen who keeps her husband from murdering her by telling intricate, cliffhanging stories for 1,001 nights.)

poster draftThis is the draft I came up with. I had decided I wanted a seductive image, focusing on Scheherezade but also showing how entrancing her stories could be. The image here is just a stock photo I found on iStockPhoto that captured the characters in the pose I envisioned; I planned to shoot my own models in that pose, but since the actors playing those roles weren't yet in town, I thought I might use staff members. Because the show featured a multicultural cast, I felt I had a fair amount of flexibility in my casting.

I never got that far -- the draft was rejected. It didn't communicate the humor of the play. Furthermore, it was, if anything, too sexy; it should show off her creativity rather than her sex appeal.

So I tried some different approaches, seen below. First I tried a silhouette of Scheherezade (left) and an illustrated adaptation of the original stock photo (middle). I added a bit of playfulness with her smile and all the bright moons issuing forth from her mouth, symbolizing the stories. I went with a style reminiscent of local design star Michael Schwab, who did all those fantastic images for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

poster drafts 2, 3, and 4

Good news: people liked the style. Bad news: it still focused too much on Scheherezade. It was more about the stories, not her. (The rejection was fine -- I hated the middle one myself, and the one on the left just looked too 70s for me.)

So I went back to the script and pulled out another image, one of finger cymbals, which would be struck one time each new story begins in the show. I did it once again in that faux-Schwab style. I was pretty happy with that version.

However, that too was rejected. By now the director and cast had arrived, and we were a day or two away from missing the deadline for the first use of the image. Surprisingly, after all the different ideas, I was asked to go back to the first draft and reshoot it now that we actually had the actors in town. We already had a press photo shoot planned with those actors, so I hijacked that shoot, which ended up doing double duty. Finally I had an approved image (photo courtesy of and logo (and I didn't even end up cribbing Michael Schwab!):

The Arabian Nights poster

It was a very long and occasionally frustrating process, but in the end I'm very happy with the result and am glad to have contributed to such a fantastic show. The part I liked best? Watching the performance on opening night and seeing the two characters end up in exactly this pose during one of the scenes. I think it's the only time I've seen one of my posters come to life on stage.

A coda: It's not all bad when a poster idea gets thrown out; what doesn't work for the poster might work perfectly well in the Berkeley Rep Magazine. I still loved my little moons from the rejected drafts, so I found a way to use them. Here's the first spread of the dramaturgy section:

program spread


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