From October-December 2017, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club hosted a temporary exhibit— “A Poster History of La MaMa’s Downtown Community”—in the lobby of its Ellen Stewart Theater. Featuring a selection of original posters from La MaMa’s Archives, the exhibition explored the history of downtown theater, the changing aesthetic vernaculars of theatrical posters, and the transformation of print technologies over the past 55 years.
The exhibit was designed to overlap with the publication of Cindy Rosenthal’s new book, Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La Mama Experimental Theatre (University of Michigan Press, 2017), which tells the history of La MaMa through its posters—and included many of the posters featured there. And while the exhibition was up, La MaMa also hosted a series of related public programs—a panel discussion (featuring John Jesurun, Theodora Skipitares, Alisa Solomon, Susan Haskins, and moderated by Rosenthal); a book celebration; and two guided exhibit tours.
Why the focus on La MaMa’s posters? In her introduction to Ellen Stewart Presents, Rosenthal argues that La MaMa’s posters offer both a sweeping overview of La MaMa’s history and an poetic index of the creative practices deployed by its contributors; the posters offer, she writes, “a mirror” of the “politics and aesthetics” that shaped La MaMa’s communities. By way of explanation, Rosenthal quotes Meredith Monk, who believes that posters have the power to convey the idea and feel of a performance better, even, than documentary photographs. “Its hard to show in one photo what a play is about,” Monk observed. “A photograph taken during the course of a performance is capturing a specific moment in time—its not a distillation of the gestalt of the experience of a performance. But…a visual artist can distill one powerful image in a poster”—and that image “can represent a production” (Ellen Stewart Presents, p. 19).
The history of La MaMa’s posters begins with the oldest artifact held in its Archives—a hand-painted poster created to announce the July 1962 production of Tennessee Williams’ “One Arm.” This black, white, and red poster—made of house-paint and cardboard, and containing only a few words of text—uses a visual style that echoes mid-century abstract painting, and doesn’t look much like the theater posters we’re used to seeing today. This design was both an aesthetic and a strategic choice: because La MaMa was, in its earliest years, an unofficial body in constant evasion of zoning regulations, artists worked to camouflage the advertising purpose of their posters. To the uninitiated, these posters were often indecipherable. But La MaMa’s communities quickly learned how to read these cryptic advertisements.
For the first few decades of its existence, La MaMa’s posters were also generally crafted at a moment’s notice with scrap materials and little money, using the cheapest, most available modes of reproduction. La MaMa had (in Rosenthal’s words) “no funds designated for publicity and no one hired to design a poster or embark on a marketing campaign” (Ellen Stewart Presents, p. 10-11). Presenting artists—who, for many years, were responsible for designing and fabricating their own posters—used an ever-evolving set of design strategies and reprographic technologies. In the 1960s, La MaMa’s artists often created one-of-a-kind, hand-made posters, using house-paint, magic marker and/or photo-collage on cardboard. By the 1970s, artists were more likely to create multiples, using silkscreen, letterpress, and other printing techniques. The 1980s and 1990s saw an explosion in the use of Letraset and the photocopy. And finally, in the 2000s, La MaMa took over the work of crafting all of its posters with computer-assisted design and digital reproduction technologies.
Perhaps most important among these technologies was the photocopy. Ozzie Rodriguez (Director of La MaMa’s Archives) calls the Xerox “the most important machine” of the mid-to-late-20th century, because it enabled theater artists to reach their audiences in entirely new ways. As early as the 1960s, Rodriguez recalls, ambitious directors “would get all the actors together,” then pair them up, give them buckets of “wallpaper paste,” and send them off to “put flyers up everywhere.” That, Rodriguez recalls, “was the underground communication that we had…That was how you got your audience.”
Artist John Jesurun believes that the photocopy also shaped the aesthetic character of La MaMa’s late-20th century posters. “We would spend time in a Xerox shop, just printing and reprinting. Blowing things up, cutting things up…It was all rulers and X-Acto knives…letters and pieces of paper cut up all over.” But in Jesurun’s view, it wasn’t just the machine that was important; it was also the subculture that grew up around the photocopy shop. “There was a whole aesthetic that came into being at the Xerox shops…a deliberate effort on our parts not to look professional,” Jesurun remembers. The photocopy, he concludes, was especially essential tool in “an age” like the late 1980s/early 1990s—which was marked by “a sense of urgency.” (For more on the history and significance of xerography, see Kate Eichorn’s Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the 20th Century [MIT Press, 2016])
Today, perhaps because tools for creating posters are available to anyone with access to a laptop, it is easy to overlook the abundance of information that posters, as artifacts, carry. Indeed, as Rosenthal notes, “with the digital age and the impact of social media, artists and their presenters” place “less emphasis on the poster” in marketing efforts. But La MaMa’s historical posters invite close investigation, and they reveal a great deal about the worlds from which they emerged. They tell an overlapping set of stories about artistic experimentation, the development of a pioneering theater organization, and the practice of visual communication across the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They suggest the ways in which changing reprographic technologies helped to shape the development of a collective visual style and supported the establishment new creative communities. And they offer a great deal of information about the ebb and flow of the artistic and political currents that shaped the East Village and NYC’s theatrical avant garde over the course of the past 50-plus years.
Below: Watch video of the panel discussion held at La MaMa on December 4, 2017 about the history of La MaMa’s posters. Featuring John Jesurun, Theodora Skipitares, Alisa Solomon, Susan Haskins, and Cindy Rosenthal. Videography by Theo Cote. (This event was made possible in part by a grant from Humanities New York.)
Programming related to “A Poster History of La MaMa’s Downtown Community” was funded in part by a grant from Humanities New York. Special thanks to Scarlett Rebman and Laura Kushnick at Humanities New York for their assistance, and, at La MaMa, to Poorna Swami, Ozzie Rodriguez, Cindy Rosenthal, Joyce Isabel, Laura Indick, Theo Cote, and Alejandra Rivera Flaviá for their work on this project.
For more about La MaMa’s archival collections, please visit our ever-evolving digital collections portal.