Burn That

Almost ten years ago, we produced our first show at Riverrun Theatre, Burn This by Lanford Wilson. In the midst of that, on a dare, I wrote the Dr. Seuss version of the story.

Needless to say, if you don’t know the play, don’t get so tense, cause this won’t make much sense. (Though I should note for clarity, one line refers to our lead actor in the show, Joel David Santner.)

Oh, the places we’ve been…

BURN THAT
with apologies to Dr. Seuss and Lanford Wilson

I am Pale.
Pale am I.

That Pale-am-I!
That Pale-am-I!
I do not like
that cognac guy!

Baby-shit Trans Am is beeping,
I jump out, shout, “Are you keeping
Those pop-up headlights,” that was it–
Do you like good food and shit?

Do I know you? Should I know you?
Should I, could I, would I know you?

Rob was light, some guys are dark–
Took forever just to park…
Fuckin’ fruit, fuckin’ fruit,
What the fuck, you fuckin’ fruit–
Let’s see what tomorrow brings;
Tits are such deceptive things.

There are times I’m a good listener.
[Listen, Larry, now he's kissin' her.] I can hear them, off in bed,
Freight train running through my head–

Morning all, let’s skip some scenes–
You know what our screwing means?

Pale, we didn’t start this out–
Well, yes, we did, without a doubt–
I do not like the way you think,
I do not like the stench of drink,
I do not like the way you talk,
I do not like your cocky walk.
Don’t be truculent, you fuck–

What’s that mean?

Think “like a truck.”

Great.

Now I’ll leave
So Bruce can enter–

[Lights up, we see Burton, center]

Burton, may I read your script?
I’ll be discreet and quite tight-lipped.

Sure, you may, then let her read it.
Maybe I should just go beat it…

Could you, would you, in a doorway,
Maybe wife way, maybe whore way,
Maybe while the snow is drifting,
Doesn’t need no heavy lifting–

I see your fox, I see your socks,
I see you getting off your rocks,
I would not, could not, in a doorway,
In a Santner or a Loehr way
No regrets, I don’t know why,
But I am not that kind of guy,
I will not go on blowing cocks,
Or suffer cheap dramatic shocks.
I will not eat you, Lar Am I,
Cause I am not that kind of guy.

Would you eat me on a plane?
Would you eat me on a train?
Would you blow me if you knew me?
Would you know me if you blew me?

I would not eat you on a plane,
I would not eat you on a train,
Or a ship or on a tractor,
Anywhere, you prophylactor,
I will not eat you, Lar Am I,
Cause I am not that kind of guy.

Could you, would you, with a goat?
I would not, could not, with a goat.

Would you believe, that’s a Seuss quote.
(“Who is Sylvia?” Albee once wrote.)

Time to go, this scene is talky,
Have a nice life, now Milwaukee….

Don’t be scared, I’m sitting here,
Stone cold sober, stunned like deer–
Larry left a note and shit,
A key, a thought, a theatre ticket.
That was you and me up there,
Tho we ain’t danced, and that’s not fair.

What’d he write,
The little bastard,
In his note–
No, read it faster.

“Pale am I, you lovely doll,
You’ve got to come, and that is all.
Cupid-like, I work my magic,
Why should love always be tragic?
As you both are diathermous,
Tell the truth, then go and burn this.”

I do not want you, Pale am I,
I did not want you, don’t ask why.

You do not want me, so you say.
Try me, try me, and you may.
Try me, and you may, I say.

I did not expect all this,
I did not expect your kiss,
I did not think I’d ever care,
Shit, man, crying in your hair.

Posted: March 2nd, 2013
Categories: parody
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Requiescat

I didn’t want to write these words so soon.

My mother passed away this week.

It was both sudden and not. The last few weeks were like living inside an episode of House–the first sign something was wrong presented like a minor stroke, but wasn’t. Keeping her for observation, they began to suspect several things, none of which panned out. She was fine at first, tired but herself. The longer she was there, the more whatever it was developed, but no one could agree on or nail down what it was. A rigidity took over, a stiffness that could have been–I kid you not–a rare condition called “stiff person’s syndrome.” Just like that, she couldn’t move, couldn’t talk. And then she went to sleep.

Time passed, treatments came and went. The rigidity went away, but still she slept. The doctors, whether out of optimism, puzzlement or misplaced kindness, declared this “the new normal” for the foreseeable future. My uncle, a psychiatrist at Columbia with a specialty in neurology and a fine diagnostician in his own right, went out to see her last weekend. His guess was two to four weeks. The morning after he flew home, she went from sleep to peace.

Sudden, but not.

I see her every day when I look in the mirror, when I look at my boys. I recognize her in the odd line from a script, in an actor’s moves in rehearsal. I share her stories when my 9 year old is looking for new books. I sing with her when my 6 year old asks for a bedtime song. I hear her inflections in their voices at the oddest times.

The other night at bedtime, after I’d heard, 6yr said, “Sing a sad song.” “What’s a sad song?” I asked. “Blue Shadows on the Trail.” Roy Rogers & the Sons of the Pioneers. Which was one of her favorite songs. It’s always been a bedtime song around here. But it’s been months since we’ve even done bedtime songs, and then it had been Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements” for months. He had no idea that she loved it, no idea why it was especially sad this time.

She taught me how to tell stories and how to people them, how to infuse them with life and dialogue and play. Who am I and what I do, that’s both nature and nurture. I can’t possibly tell you enough about her, but if you know me, then surely you know her in some small way.

For all my social media presence, there’s much that I don’t share out loud. But I do want to share this one thought in her memory. Earlier today, I heard a quote from a dopey tv show that went something like this: sometimes, you can’t see the joyful parts of your life until the very end. And I thought, that’s no way to live.

She taught me to recognize joy, to look for it all the time no matter how dark the situation. It wasn’t about ignoring the dark, it was about remembering the light when dark was all around. She taught me to embrace that light–that joy–and to share it, to drive back the dark.

Now, family and friends will gather this week to cry and laugh and remember. Some have never met before. Some are family friends I haven’t seen in ages. And if I’m honest with myself, some are people I may never see again. All of us are bound together by this shared love, this moment in the dark.

As we come together, I look forward to finding that joy.

She wouldn’t want it any other way.

Posted: October 9th, 2011
Categories: memory
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Writing-By-Numbers

First, let me point you to Gwydion Suilebhan’s blog post about numerology and bad theatre.

It’s okay. I can wait.

After reading his post, I would beg to differ on the potential significance of dates and numbers. Last month, my son’s sixth birthday was 10/10/10, which was the coolest thing ever in his eyes. I don’t need statistics to grasp pure joy. No, I don’t lend such dates greater significance or express shock at their occurrence. But there is worth in the wonder at patterns.

Of course, what makes coincidences amazing is precisely because of the vast number of non-coincidences that happen (or don’t happen) all the time. Why let the deafening roar of chaos drown out a moment of chance, of beauty, of joy? Is it a true pattern or a random turn of the Rubik’s Cube? Does it matter? Enjoy the rainbow while it’s there, even if you know how it works and why you’ll never reach the end of it. Knowing the science behind it shouldn’t occlude or preclude enjoyment of it.

Beauty and joy don’t need meaning in order to be beautiful or joyful. It’s fun when there is meaning behind it, sure, and (to me) a good writer will include meaning in their work. It’s why I love Stoppard. But I can enjoy a show like Shear Madness, whose only meaning seems to be the inclusion of as many stock characters, cliches and deus ex machina endings as possible. Its sole purpose is entertaining and engaging its audience, and the exuberance of the cast and the joy they bring to the show is infectious. It’s a Rubik’s Cube of a play in that it can have any combination of character, motive and ending, it depends on chance and the audience to finish the story. Is it a good script? Eh. Does it challenge me? Not in the slightest. With all those numbers and combinations, is it bad theatre? It’s not high art. But I’ve seen it entirely too many times and still enjoy it every time.

Beyond that, if we weren’t looking for patterns in the everyday randomness, would we know anything of gravity, relativity, strings or space-time? Arguably, every great scientific discovery was born out of noticing seemingly insignificant patterns in the quotidian, wondering why all the iron filings lined up or why apples fell down and not up. Noticing those patterns has given our lives–our very existence–more meaning than if we had continued to plod forward, ignoring them.

Let’s bring it back to playwriting. Old playwrights are just as prone to cliche and writing-by-numbers. Young playwrights are just as likely to break rules whether they know them or not. Those that do write-by-numbers aren’t fixated on patterns so much as they are fixated on the lessons they learned in “how to write gooder.” It’s the reason why so much of television is bland and boring, because you have to have an A-story and a B-story and there has to be conflict here and resolution there, and why would you want the stories to be thematic, that’s crazy talk. But that’s another post entirely…

Dates that line up, or waiting for the clock to read “12:34:56,” no, these patterns don’t mean anything. But don’t you smile when you see that on the clock? It’s the temporal equivalent of a rainbow, nothing more. We know it’ll happen, we know how and why it works. A broken clock is correct twice a day, after all. If you look at the clock a second too late, it’s gone. A second or two early, you feel the anticipation. And if you look at exactly that second? Double rainbow.

Does any of this lead to discovering the unified field theory? No. But at some level, it does give most people a moment of discovery, inspiration, a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, and why take that away? Maybe their wonder at such patterns will lead to other, more complex patterns that do unlock something new. Maybe my six-year-old will formulate a version of string theory that works with ten dimensions. Maybe writing stock cliched deus ex machina plots can lead to writers blasting through them and creating something exciting and different.

We needed to see the numbers before we could discover the imaginary numbers.

(Speaking of which, there is also the joy of the Stone Brewing “Vertical Epic,” twelve beers released slowly over the past ten years, on dates that line up. There are two more to go. And you can store all of them until the twelfth appears–on 12/12/12–and taste them all. It’s a wondrous thing, full of portent, hops and joy, inspiration in bottled form. It is no coincidence. This has been an unpaid endorsement.)

Posted: November 11th, 2010
Categories: the process
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Hope you guess my name.

An unnamed journalist in a warzone.
A friendly translator in his homeland.
Together, they cover the story of a lifetime.

That’s the story of A Report of Gunfire boiled down to the essentials. It’s a script I wrote for the 2008 Capital Fringe Festival, developed from a ten-minute short from the 2006 Louisville Playwrights Festival. (You can actually see that version at the Gunfire website. A version of this ten minutes became the first scene of the full-length version. But this short is about a very different journalist in the end.)

The artwork for the show seemed simple. I’d been wanting to do something with a Saul Bass flavor to it for a while. (If you don’t know who Saul Bass is, well, as Bugs would say, “For shame, Doc. For shame.”) The initial idea was a single bullet hole, with a gush of red pouring out. This did not work. It looked like a strange nun, maybe a Christmas tree gone horribly wrong.

Take two. This is the one that worked.

the poster for the 2008 Capital Fringe production

A road, a body, three bullets for three characters who die during the story. The colors make reference to the old “what’s black and white and red all over” joke. And the tagline, “In times of war, silence can be deadly,” ties in to an anecdote the journalist tells about how sometimes the silence is scarier than the noise. The play plays with sound and silence throughout, both literal and metaphorical.

And what about the title of this post? We used the Neptunes’ remix of Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones, albeit without the ambient noise at the beginning of this clip. It was a nice jolt of noise in the dark and silence at the very end of the play.

Posted: February 17th, 2010
Categories: artwork, marketing, the process
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One moment to feel your warmth.

This is marketing artwork from Te Dua, a play by Jennifer Wills from a true story developed by Adale O’Brien, which won the Forth Freedom Playwriting Award at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in 2001. It’s the true story of two people on different sides of the conflict in Sarajevo, told (in this draft) with imagery from board games and strategy games. I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s a tragedy in the end. It’s a fine play, and I hope we get to see how it’s developed since the Hanover production.

Te Dua

Each of these images anchored their own posters, with all three appearing on the program covers.

I’m going to have to revisit this post at a later date, because I don’t have the translations handy. But I managed to translate several phrases, some from the play directly, some thematically in line with the play, and used them as the propaganda slogans in the artwork. (I’ll also include a larger version of the artwork as well…)

For the imagery itself, I knew from the first reading that the artwork would be Soviet-style propaganda art. I knew some already, researched more, sparking to the work of artists like Valentina Kulagina, Litvak, the Stenberg brothers, and particularly the works of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Rodchenko. (These links are all from the A Soviet Poster A Day blog, which is inactive. It didn’t exist when I was doing my initial research.)

The top image, with Uncle Moneybags (or whatever they’re calling him these days), plays with the board game themes in the script, using Monopoly as a dual-edged reference to Communist Russia. The bottom image, with the fist, is more directly inspired by some actual posters. Both of these were hand-drawn.

The central image, which was also the primary artwork, is a collage of drawn elements, typography and photography, featuring the lead actors from the production.

As good as the show was, and as much as people liked the artwork, the best part of the experience for me was when we managed to get copies of the artwork to the actual soldier whose story inspired the play. He was stunned at the wording in the posters–and stunned that it was translated properly–but knew immediately what original artwork had inspired which element in each poster. He was amazed that anyone here in southern Indiana knew Mayakovsky or would design art in his and Rodchenko’s styles. That he loved the art meant a lot.

If you’d like to set the mood, listen to Vrbana Bridge by Jill Sobule (at Amazon or iTunes). This is the song that essentially opened the show, a similarly tragic story in the same setting.

To close the show, the theatre commissioned an original song by Tamara Dearing, of whom you’ve heard a little on this blog already. (If you haven’t, go check out Suo Gan.) She recorded two versions, an instrumental for the actual ending and a second version with lyrics for the curtain call. This is the one with lyrics.

It’s also where the title of this post comes from.

Tamara Dearing – Te Dua

Creative Commons License

Te Dua by Tamara Dearing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.tamaradearing.com.

Posted: February 4th, 2010
Categories: artwork, marketing, music, original songs, the process
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A word about art.

Seth Godin has a pretty simple definition of art.

I happen to think his definition is too simple.

Godin states that his definition of art has three elements. Let’s take them one by one.

1. Art is made by a human being.

Unless it’s not. Is the art in an Ansel Adams photograph the photo itself or the landscape he shot? Is it simply his eye and the way he framed it, or is the art still there in nature, waiting to be seen? Can’t it be both?

Take a look at The Asian Elephant Art Conservation Project, which features and sells some astonishing paintings created by elephants. Elephants. The line painting of an elephant walking is just astounding. And elephants aren’t the only animals who can create what could legitimately be called art.

2. Art is created to have an impact, to change someone else.

Unless it’s not. I tell stories because I have to tell them. They have to come out. I cannot not write. But once I’ve written it down, that story exists even if no one else ever sees it. You could say that the story has an impact on my own development and evolution as a writer, but that is a by-product, that is not the impulse behind the actual writing.

“Changing someone else” is also a by-product. If someone is genuinely changed by a story or a play that I’ve written–and if that change is for the better–that’s lovely. If you want to say that their enjoyment of a play over two hours is a change in itself, then fine. Because that’s really the only goal I have when I write a play–to tell a story that entertains you, maybe makes you think. If you enjoy it–if you want to see more–then I’ve done my job.

Vincent van Gogh–of whom I know just a little–had no such expectations. He painted because this is how he saw the world and he had to document that vision. His work was little-seen in his lifetime, he had little to no impact on anyone else at the time. His one attempt to create a studio of collaborating artists was a brief, dismal failure. And yet, his art has had tremendous impact, it did change the world in terms of what was possible in a painting. But those were secondary, those were by-products. Vincent never knew them in his lifetime.

3. Art is a gift. You can sell the souvenir, the canvas, the recording…but the idea itself is free, and the generosity is a critical part of making art.

Unless it’s not. The idea is indeed a gift, but it’s the artist’s gift. And only through the artist does the art come into existence. The artist is the lens through which the idea takes focus, shape, dimension. You might see the Grand Canyon, and not really see it until you look at an Adams photograph. I can tell you the idea of the story of Hamlet in under a minute, but that “idea” is not the art of the story, it can’t replace the four hours of Shakespeare’s text. If I tell you point blank who or what Rosebud is, it doesn’t mean you’d come up with the story of Citizen Kane yourself.

Or is he saying that the generosity comes from sharing the work in a public forum? Because again, unless you pay for your theatre ticket, you won’t experience any more of my theatre production than that two or three sentence description you read in the paper. Whether you see the play or not, the play is still there, the art has been made. Sharing it is secondary. I’m not so much selling my play out of some mercenary impulse as I am trying to earn the money to pay the cast and crew, to pay my own salary, to continue to have the freedom to tell stories, to make my art. Art is work, and the workers have every right to be compensated.

Godin concludes by saying, “By my definition, most art has nothing to do with oil paint or marble. Art is what we’re doing when we do our best work.

You may call your best work, your “what we’re doing when we do our best work” art, sir. But that devalues the word “art” for those of us who toil at it, who might be crazy enough to try and make a living from selling our “souvenirs.” It redefines the word away from something of value to something that is freely and generously shared. It posits that without that freedom, without that sharing, it is something less than pure art.

It is up to me as an artist to decide how I will share my work. That work is my commodity, it is all I have to give. And make no mistake, I have given away plenty of art, whether as prints to friends, scripts to small theatre groups, marketing designs for strapped college theatre departments, what have you. I have done quite a bit of free artwork in my time. But that was my decision. It does not change the value of the art I try to sell, it does not elevate the value of the art given freely.

People wonder why there are so many starving artists. It’s definitions like this that help to keep them starving.

Posted: January 25th, 2010
Categories: the process
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The Title’s a Spoiler.

Picking up on the theme of making merry of Mamet, here’s scene seven from my play The Rough Guide to the Underworld, featuring a more specific parody. It’s set in a bar in the Underworld, the Tenth Circle…

Sexual Perversity Inferno

The play itself started life as a series of monologues, then expanded into a set of sketches. That was the plan. A revue. Until the characters began to drift from sketch to sketch and interact with one another. Suddenly, there was a story, a throughline, several tales woven in and out of each other.

Matthew Wilson, Kevin Pierson, Bob Rogerson, Laura C. Harris and Gillian Shelly in 'The Rough Guide to the Underworld' at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington D.C., June/July 2009.

(left to right) Matthew Wilson, Kevin Pierson, Bob Rogerson, Laura C. Harris and Gillian Shelly in The Rough Guide to the Underworld, at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington D.C., June/July 2009.

This particular thread involves a writer named Dante (no relation) and a film producer named Bobby. Of course, Mamet’s play Speed-the-Plow features a film producer named Bobby. What’s not as well known is his one-act follow-up, Bobby Gould in Hell. Add to that the fact that the first scene of Sexual Perversity in Chicago is a dialogue between Bernie and Danny. You can probably see where I connected the dots.

So the first minute of this scene is an almost direct parody of the first scene from Sexual Perversity in Chicago, except it goes off into film production instead of sexual conquests. From there, it spins into its own weird little story…

As for the scene title, all of the scenes in The Rough Guide to the Underworld have titles, which can be projected above/behind the action if so desired. In this case, the title isn’t so much a spoiler as a heads-up for Mamet jokes. There’s a different title in here that’s a spoiler. But I’m not going to spoil that part.

Posted: January 24th, 2010
Categories: parody, plays, the process
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Repetitive Christmas Tunes.

Here’s a lyric I wrote four years ago for my wife, who hates a certain Christmas song by Paul McCartney.

There’s not much to explain about this process, except for a wonderful discovery while writing. In the bridge sections of the song, I threw in a joke about John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) as a throwaway gag. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized you could sing the two songs in counterpoint.

I’ll leave it to the musicologists to parse what that says about the respective songwriters. I’m just happy to have the extra joke…

(to the tune of Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney)

The Moog is on,
The organs beep,
We hear some bells,
And I might weep

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes

McCartney’s on,
The song is bland,
A melody
I cannot stand

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes

The choir of children sing their song
Ding dong, King Kong,
Sing-song gone wrong…

(War is over,
No, it isn’t…
War is over,
No, it isn’t…)

Ohhhh
Ohhhhhhh

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes

The words are short,
They seem to be
One syllable,
Simplicity

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes

The choir of children repeat their words,
This song is for the birds
Sing song, sing song (War is over)
Ding dong, ding dong (No, it isn’t)
Ding dong, ding dong (That’s John Lennon)
(No, it’s a cover…)

The music’s played,
The spirits drunk,
Let’s hunt him down,
Man on the run…

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes

The Moog is on,
The organs beep,
We hear Sir Paul,
And I might weep

Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes (Song is over…)
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes (If you want it…)
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes (Song is over…)
Simply hating repetitive Christmas tunes (Now…)

Ohhhhhhhhh
Christmas tunes

Posted: January 24th, 2010
Categories: music, parody, the process
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Nightdogs.

This is one of my favorite pieces, bar none.

Years ago, when I was still doing their marketing designs, the Hanover College Theatre put on a revue of sketches, short plays and songs under the banner title, “I Have to Say I Love You.” The only caveat for the artwork: don’t use hearts, don’t do the cliches.

I tried design after design, I went to rehearsals and watched the show, but nothing was coming to me. Finally, I asked the director what his idea of the show was, because–aside from love and all the cliches–it was escaping me. “Well, I’d like to think it’s like an issue of the New Yorker.” Stories, cartoons, short pieces. The first image popped into my head. Within the week, there were approximately 40 faux New Yorker cartoons, all in various styles, from Thurber to Addams, Arno to Chast, Gorey to BEK.

This was before I had children or cats roaming my home at will.

Eventually, all of the cartoons wound up on posters, cards, even programs. There were four variant programs, each with unique artwork on the cover and throughout. We mixed and matched so that–hopefully–no two people sitting next to each other got the same artwork.

This poster is one that I’ve captioned Nightdogs. It’s Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting as James Thurber might have redrawn it, albeit with a lot more chiaroscuro than Thurber would’ve used. A lot more.

Of course, that was the challenge, balancing the Thurber dogs with the Hopper style and staying as true to each as possible.

There are a couple of small in-jokes, too. If you look at the sign over the window, you’ll see the phrase, “My Diner and Welcome to It,” which refers to the celebrated 1969 sitcom My World and Welcome To It, adapted from Thurber’s writing. (You can see some of the show here if you’re curious.)

There’s also a reference in the sign to Thurber and Hopper as well as Charles Schulz, who acknowledged Thurber as an influence. If you look really closely, you might even spot where that influence went…

What did this image have to do with the show? Not much by itself. But as part of a larger campaign–with twelve different poster designs, six different flyers and four different programs–it set the mood. You were going to see something like an issue of the New Yorker unfold on stage. Some of the cartoons had more to do with the specific theme of love than others–and I do plan to share some of those later.

But this one’s my favorite of all.

Posted: January 24th, 2010
Categories: artwork, marketing, parody, the process
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Colors on the snowy linen land.

In late 2008, Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia, commissioned a play about Vincent van Gogh. Their one request was that it should include at least part of one of Vincent’s sermons from when he was briefly a clergyman. I’d already had an idea for a story of van Gogh, using the letters and story of his friend and protege Emile Bernard to show us a side of van Gogh we haven’t often seen. That’s how Seeing Red was born. That’s all a story for another post.

Right now, we’re just looking at the promotional art.

Seeing Red postcard

This was the primary artwork when we performed the show in Madison, Indiana, in Sept 2009. It had evolved from the original design we used in Georgia in Feb 2009.

Because we’re seeing Vincent from the angle of another artist, we see a black and white outline of one of Vincent’s self-portraits. It is for us, and for Bernard, to fill in the colors, the details. The text is in a clear, clean font for contrast and visibility from a distance. The title itself comes from a phrase in one of Vincent’s letters describing his condition as “seeing red,” which is the only color we see in the artwork.

The frame, while appropriate to the subject, is actually carried over from previous shows as part of our house style. Local audiences see this and even if they can’t make anything else out, they know that it’s a Riverrun Theatre poster because of the style.

Posted: January 23rd, 2010
Categories: artwork, marketing, the process
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