A Streetcar Named Desire
Sometimes when you need to design the poster for a play, you say “Oh, shit. That play?”
Sometimes it’s because the theater world knows it so well, you better not screw up. Sometimes it’s because everyone knows the title and, thus, retain a preconceived notion of how it should look and feel. Sometimes it’s because nothing will ever top Marlon Brando’s performance from 60+ years ago, so why bother?
A Streetcar Named Desire has all of these sometimes. Lucky for me, I had an ace up my sleeve.
Ignorance Is Strength
Until recently, I had never seen a production of Streetcar. I only know Tennessee Williams from seeing an Actors Theatre of Louisville production of The Glass Menagerie over a decade ago. Basically, I didn’t know anything.
In design, not unlike entrepreneurship, fresh eyes can give you the upper hand. Unencumbered by established tropes, the discovery phase is your own brew. You are free to be curious and attempt solutions that fail. You get the privilege of learning.
I promptly read the script and watched the Brando. True to form with the little I know of Williams plays, the central female protagonist is a delusional lost cause with a fractured sense of reality. It’s both heart-wrenching and frustrating.
The Look and Feel
After meeting with director Chris Coleman, I sought out folk art — the provincial flavor of New Orleans from artists and artisans who know the city best. I found paintings and hand-painted signs, photos and tiled typography. If making a poster is a road trip, this sort of inspiration is the mixtape (that used to be a thing, kids), while my notes tend to serve as the map.
I quickly began sketching thumbnails. Two solid concepts emerged, along with an idea for a painterly hand-lettered script.
- Blanche in the foreground, being chased down by the large and looming Stanley — dark truth catching up to a frail lie.
- Broken mirror, taken straight from the film. The metaphor is pretty blunt: when Blanche is raped, her perception of the world is forever shattered.
- Script lettering, from an early conversation with PCS about the significance of the title — everyone knows the title and, thus, a preconceived notion of how it should look and feel. Let the art take a step back; allow the audience to imagine the play how they like.
Any one of these images would suffice (PCS preferred the broken mirror). However, after a week of developing the broken mirror I felt defeat creeping in. Mirrors are boring. And what’s it reflecting? I couldn’t get the spider web of broken glass to look right. The type was illegible.
I was lost.
The Eleventh Hour
But then I saw the No Country book cover by Christopher Lin (design) and Michael Accordino (art direction), which immediately triggered my memory of Ben Shahn’s Ballets U.S.A., which led me to his Patterson, NJ-inspired patchwork paintings.
Side note: Oh, man, do I love Shahn! My friend Luke Wilhelmi lent me Prints and Posters of Ben Shahn nearly five years ago, and I flip through it probably once a month — it pairs nicely with Thelonious Monk, tea and Sunday mornings.
Sometime around 11 pm the night before I would send the next round to PCS, I started drawing the title in the style of Shahn. Before I even scanned in the art, I could see it was going to be more interesting.
I need to stress that this is unusual. Typically, my research for a poster prepares me for a fluid development process, where the march of progress is steady. Change-ups this late in the game are rare, and good change-ups are rarer still.
For the sake of me really wanting to draw a cheese chart and a giraffe graph, illustrated here are the arcs of normal and not-so-normal project progress. Streetcar was a total giraffe.
Order from Chaos
This concept really clicked. Blanche weaves a dysfunctional patchwork of a reality she manages to sustain (until she doesn’t). Colors once bold are dark and desaturated. The patches are uneven, misshapen and mismatched. They are scuffed and scratched, dirty and distressed, unravelling at the seams and wearing through the middle.
The title and credits lettering play central themes and characters from Streetcar. The title is at once crude and bold, the ugly truth, Stanley. The credits are a blunted beauty, an arthritic hand attempting the penmanship of its past, Blanche.
At any moment, it could all fall apart. But together, the elements create a harmonious tension. Synergy.
Fortunately, any risk of showing something unexpected to the client was mollified by my several-years-long relationship with PCS. And, fortunately, they loved the new direction.
That’s another poster in the bucket. Time for tea.
For more on Michael Buchino, visit buchino.net.