Photographing the arts: is your photographer part of your creative team?
Theatre, dance, opera and music are some of the things I most enjoy working on as a photographer.
But surprisingly often, I get a call or an email that starts off, 'I know this is short notice, but' - and it can be anything from 'we've just realised we need a photographer for next week' to 'our dress rehearsal is in an hour, can you make it?'
Often, this isn’t the production's fault - they had someone booked, something happened, they need to find another photographer on short notice.
But it got me thinking recently, what's the best way to involve a photographer in a show? In an ideal world, how & when would I like to be contacted?
The easy answer would be just 'as early as possible'; but of course, there are a number of ways photographers get involved in a work, even stretching back as far as a brochure shoot a year or more ahead of the actual performance dates, often before the cast are even decided on - or sometimes even before the script is finalised!
So, where are the possible places to involve the production photographer - and what might come out of it?
Early Development / Workshops
If you’re building a production from scratch, putting together a team, and pitching it to venues and festivals, there can often be a stage of development - or a ‘show and tell’ - where some of the initial ideas get sketched out in a rehearsal space.
Of course, not everyone you’re pitching to can be there; but having great images - even if the set and costume designs aren’t fully formed - can make people want to hear more about your proposal.
The First Read-Through
As your photographer, I'm responsible for a lot of the visual tone you'll be presenting to the public, to give them a sense of what your work is like. So if I've read the script myself, done my own analysis of the themes, and come along to the first read through to see how the director, designer and cast's thoughts compare with mine, I’m already that much more involved in the production, and even able to feed ideas into the process.
I've also met the production crew, and the cast, who will feel much more comfortable having me around during rehearsals and other shoots - I'm no longer an outsider with a camera who turns up one day, I'm part of the creative crew.
As with the script read-through, if I've been to design meetings and presentations from costume, lighting & set designers, won't I have a much richer visual sense of where the production is going - and how to reflect that visually, not just in terms of what the cast are doing and wearing, but in choosing how I light them for the poster / brochure / social media images you're going to be using?
In the same way a good costume designer knows the history of garment design, a good photographer should know the look & feel of the time a production is set in, and how to bring out the tone of the era - if that’s what works for the marketing of the show.
Announcements, Photo Ops & Media Calls
If I've been part of the process up to this point, I'll have a much better idea of the message you're wanting to convey to your audience, via media releases and social media - and got a much better sense of what your company’s about, artistically speaking.
So, naturally, I've got a deeper understanding of what you want to achieve through the images I'm creating - and I can bring the tone and mood of the production through, as well as starting to show the relationships of characters to each other.
The Poster / Promotional Image
If I've read the script, and know a fair bit about the design concepts for the production, I'm more than ready to help create a concept image for the production - something that captures the flavour of the show without giving away too much, conveying the essence of the characters and their relationships, and perhaps setting the scene a little as well.
Something that lures an audience to learn more about these people - without revealing the full journey the show will take them on.
The Rehearsal Room
The poster / studio images are usually already done by the time we hit the rehearsal room; but being there can also give me a chance to be more prepared for the dress rehearsal, when proper production images are ultimately made.
Why not use this opportunity to create some new social media images, to build hype around the show as it comes together - and also let me get to know the key moments in terms of blocking, so I know where to position myself in the theatre on the night?
Technical Setup / Production Week
Depending on the production, the technical and design elements can be some of the most interesting aspects of a show; so having images of how things come together can help not just on social media, but for later touring and re-staging of a particular design to different venues, cities, or even other countries - even with different casts, in years to come. This can be particularly important in non-theatrical venues, where the performance space itself is built as part of the show.
Of course, having great production images is critical to most shows - for reviewers, publicity, social media, everywhere. But by the time we get to the night of the dress rehearsal, if I’ve been involved at many points through the process, I know what to expect, the cast know what I’m there to do, and everything works.
Plus of course, as I’ve written about before, I’ve already got everyone’s needs in mind - from marketing, to touring, to the designers’ portfolios. It’s all in hand - so the producers and director can focus on the dress rehearsal itself, and not have to think about whether they’ve briefed me well enough before we start…!
Not every show has a red carpet; but would you get extra publicity, if you did? Are there blogs, newspapers, or magazines that would run a social column about the opening itself - but might not send a photographer themselves - that could drive extra ticket sales?
Plus, having worked with me all the way through the process, the cast & crew will react much better to seeing me, than they would to being met by press photographers they don’t know - and the images will reflect that.
Once a production is up and running, there are still ways I can help.
A limited edition archival print from the show, signed by the cast & crew, is something that can be auctioned to raise funds, or given to high-value donors and sponsors as a thank you gift - or, given away to an audience member at the end of the season, to give them an incentive to sign up to your mailing list. How many people come to the show with friends who booked the tickets, and you never get a chance to communicate directly with them afterwards?
Now, obviously, not EVERY production is going to have the time or resources to involve a photographer at EVERY stage of a show’s life; but isn’t it worth looking for how many different ways you can build that relationship, if the quality of the images - and by extension, all the marketing, social media, and publicity materials that use them - is that much better as a result…?
You wouldn't want to miss having your production, set, costume and lighting designers involved as early and often as possible, in the process of creating a work; and for all the same reasons, your photographer should be there, too.
Early Development / Workshop: Legs On The Wall - The Raft workshop
The First Read-Through: Apocalypse Theatre - The Dapto Chaser rehearsal script with promotional image on cover
Design Presentations: Pinchgut Opera - Theodora design presentation
Announcements, Photo Ops & Media Calls: Belvoir Theatre - Mitchell Butel, Marcus Graham and Luke Mullins in an Angels In America publicity image
The Poster / Promotional Image: An Assorted Few - Chloe Bayliss in a promotional image for Home Invasion
The Rehearsal Room: Sport For Jove - the cast of No End Of Blame in rehearsal
Technical Setup / Production Week: Nick Schlieper at the New Zealand International Arts Festival
Dress Rehearsal: LPD Productions - the cast of Cry-Baby at the Hayes Theatre
Opening Night: The cast of Bonnie Lythgoe Productions’ Sleeping Beauty at the State Theatre, Sydney