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Early theatre posters

Playbill for Barnes and Finley's booth, Smithfield Fair, London, 1701. Museum no. TM HRB Q.2, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Playbill for Barnes and Finley's booth, Smithfield Fair, London, 1701. Museum no. TM HRB Q.2, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

During the Middle Ages, performances by strolling players or guilds were announced by processions of the performers themselves, sometimes accompanied by vexillators – people carrying banners. Town-criers also announced performances, with actors beating drums or playing other instruments. For those who could read, brief hand-written details of performances were handed out and stuck to posts in towns, giving rise to the word 'poster', but the quickest way of attracting a crowd was by word of mouth, and the sound of the drum and trumpet.

The first public theatre in England opened in London in 1576. Performances at the first theatres were announced by the distribution of handbills, a drum procession through the streets, and by a flag hoisted at the theatre where the performance was taking place. Just before the start of a play, three trumpet calls were given at the theatre.

The earliest posters or playbills measured about 17.5 x 7.5 cms (7" x 3"). We know that some were printed by 1587, when a printer was granted a licence for 'the only ympryntinge of all manner of bills for players'. In Ben Jonson’s play 'Bartholomew Fair', 1614, two characters enter with playbills announcing a puppet play.

After theatre started again at the Restoration in 1662, the practice of hoisting a flag at theatres to announce plays resumed, as did the distribution and posting of hand-written playbills, especially in the countryside. Small, printed playbills, giving brief details of the play, its title, date and starting time, were produced on hand-made rag paper, by the printing process called letterpress.

Larger posters were influenced by those of a French theatre company who visited London in 1672, printed not only in black, but more expensive red ink. By the end of the century, London theatres produced similar posters or 'Great Bills', as well as the smaller ones, despite their extra cost. Gradually more information about the performances appeared on both sizes of poster, and the smaller ones were distributed in the streets and delivered to the homes of regular playgoers. Actors’ names began to appear, and some complained if their names didn't feature in large enough letters.

19th century theatre posters

In the 19th century, circuses and menageries led the way in pictorial advertising, because the acts and animals lent themselves to illustration. Pictures of exciting circus acts also attracted the attention of potential audience members who couldn’t read. Town-criers also announced performances, with actors beating drums or playing other instruments.

The invention of the first machine that could manufacture paper in continuous sheets meant that paper-making costs dropped dramatically, and circuses began to add woodcut, or wood-engraved images to their posters. Iron presses were introduced after 1800, followed by steam-powered presses but although these were much faster, they were expensive to install. As late as 1850, mechanised presses were considered a novelty, and those who had them noted proudly on their posters that they used steam printers. These presses only printed the text, however, and images still had to be added separately.

Lithographic printing

With the invention of lithographic printing in 1851, theatre managers realised that they could provide coloured illustrations to advertise their productions. They also saw that detailed cast-lists were superfluous on posters, and some managers began producing separate programmes to give that information when patrons reached the theatre. As theatres gradually moved from nightly changing programmes to runs of plays, so the production of both programmes and posters became more viable.

The earliest colour lithograph posters of the 1860s were small, but they gradually increased in size. Towards the end of the century the influence of great French poster artists such as Jules Chèret and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec was important too. By the 1890s poster design was regarded as an art, as well as an indispensable form of advertising. People marvelled at the large, coloured pictures on the streets and commercial poster hoardings were introduced.

Early 20th century theatre posters

By 1900 huge, coloured theatre advertisements appeared on the streets, comprising many sheets, posted like a jigsaw to make one huge picture. A poster for a tour of an Adelphi Theatre melodrama was made up of 56 separate sheets, printed in 28 colours.

Poster advertising was so important at the turn of the century that printers introduced stock posters - posters with images that could be used for advertising the most popular plays or pantomimes. A manager didn’t have to go to the expense of producing his own posters. He could buy them ready-made and add the text.

Advances were made in the technology of poster production in the early 20th century, including silk-screen printing and mechanised lithography. As the century progressed, however, the flamboyance of posters decreased. The problems of the two World Wars affected poster production in Britain, and by the middle of the century typographical posters were the most common.

Theatre posters from the late 20th century to present

Cinema and television brought images of performers into the home in the 1950s and encouraged photographs of stars on theatre posters as on film posters. It wasn’t until the 1960s that imaginative poster art really began to flourish again, fostered by the Pop Art movement, which used screen printing extensively to produce colourful posters. The most innovative poster advertising of the1960s was for concerts, clubs and albums, with students avidly collecting posters to decorate their bedrooms.

In the 1970s poster artists began to experiment with photography and photomontage, but as the century progressed other forms of advertising began to be just as important as posters, for instance flyers, leaflets, press, radio and television advertisements. Increasingly too, West End theatre posters were produced by one agency, who looked for an icon image for theatre posters, such as cats’ eyes for the musical Cats, or the mask for The Phantom of the Opera - images which would work on merchandising as well as on posters.

Posters are no longer a novelty but they are still an important part of theatre advertising in the 21st century. Poster designers are increasingly aware of the importance of finding the right image to entice people to the theatre. Several long-running productions have regular cast changes bringing film or television stars to the West End, and photographs of them feature on the posters. Several different posters are often produced for one production – one to advertise an opening, another to include press comments and others to advertise cast changes or the end of the run.

Posters may no longer be the major form of theatre advertising but they are still an essential part of any marketing strategy for a production. Their design is probably harder to get right now than it was over 400  years ago, when the earliest posters hit the posts.

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