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"It's my responsibility to make the poster work as this thing that operates out in the world on its own terms," artist James McMullan says. Photo: Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times


SUNDAY CALENDAR
Sunday, Aug 12, 2001

"When the Play Is a Memory, His Image Lasts. James McMullan's posters capture the essence of complex New York shows."

By Hugh Hart

[James McMullan]'s craftsmanship is on display through Sept. 23 at Art Center College of Design's Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery. "The Theater Posters of James McMullan" features 22 "three-sheet" posters, a term that originated at a time when three separate panels of paper were glued together to make each 3-by-7-foot poster. The show also offers more than 100 watercolors, pencil sketches, alternate versions and reference photographs of such actors as Donald Sutherland, Sam Waterston and James McDaniels, who have posed for his posters.

Such clashes are rare. McMullan's portraits capture a play's essence so aptly that poses from his posters are sometimes incorporated into the staging. For the musical "Anything Goes," Patti LuPone closed the first act with a gazing-over-her-shoulder pose borrowed from McMullan's poster. With "A Fair Country," about an archeologist whose life is falling apart, McMullan portrayed the lead character in a crouch, staring at shards of pottery. After seeing the poster, playwright Jon Robin Baitz incorporated the blocking into his stage directions for the play's opening scene.

"The weird thing is, the poster tends to become truer and truer the longer the play runs," McMullan says. "In some cases, the poster affects the performance to some degree." After Cherry Jones saw his evocative watercolor for "The Heiress," McMullan recalls, "Cherry sent me a note during the rehearsal stage, saying, 'You caught Catherine long before I knew her, and I confess I turned to your poster more than once to center myself in the role.' "

Like his hero Toulouse-Lautrec, New York illustrator James McMullan understands the power of a telling gesture, the charisma of the human figure and the peculiar magnetism of troubled characters. He is, in short, perfectly suited for designing theater posters.

An "Anything Goes" pose used in the show, left, a nixed "Godot" idea, and a work evoking "Guernica."
As principal poster artist for Lincoln Center Theater, the 67-year-old McMullan has spent much of the past quarter century distilling complex stage pieces by Edward Albee, John Guare, Tom Stoppard, Wole Soyinka and other prickly playwrights into deceptively simple images.

McMullan's craftsmanship is on display through Sept. 23 at Art Center College of Design's Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery. "The Theater Posters of James McMullan" features 22 "three-sheet" posters, a term that originated at a time when three separate panels of paper were glued together to make each 3-by-7-foot poster. The show also offers more than 100 watercolors, pencil sketches, alternate versions and reference photographs of such actors as Donald Sutherland, Sam Waterston and James McDaniels, who have posed for his posters.

Strolling through the gallery, the droll, neatly dressed artist has a back story for every picture. That desperate entertainer (Jonathan Pryce) at the center of "Comedians" was envisioned by McMullan as an antic life force "halfway between a stork and a hawk." Horses seem an obvious choice to illustrate "Carousel," but these stallions, representing warring sides of hero Billy Bigelow's personality, are straight out of Picasso's "Guernica." "Front Page" proffers a reporter urgently yakking into a phone. But look closely: His body is twisted around because, in McMullan's imagining, this adrenaline junkie has grabbed the phone on somebody else's desk.

For McMullan, it's all about finding what he calls a "lock" that will crack open the play's essence. McMullan reads a script, ruminates, then conjures a central image.

At this stage, he'll brook no interference. "It took Lincoln Center a few posters to understand the territory within which my mind operates," he says, "but they do leave me alone in the first part of that process. Sometimes they disagree with what I come up with, but they understand that that moment, that basic physical metaphor, shouldn't be arrived at through a committee process."

McMullan and his muse may be left alone in the beginning, but intensive creative tweaking kicks in once he presents sketches to executive director Bernard Gersten, the artistic director (originally Gregory Mosher, now Andre Bishop), playwrights, directors and marketing people. "It's a struggle," McMullan says. "The theater is a place of everybody pulling together and cooperating and seeing it as a team effort. A poster exists all by itself. It doesn't have lighting, it doesn't have sound, it doesn't have music. It's my responsibility to make the poster work as this thing that operates out in the world on its own terms."

For the 1996 revival of Albee's "A Delicate Balance," about a bitter suburban couple and their hard-drinking relatives, Albee wanted to see a glass of whiskey as the central image. That wasn't going to happen, McMullan recalls. "I showed [Albee] my sketches and he didn't seem to like them very much, and he suggested a whiskey glass. He could tell I wasn't going to budge from using [human] figures. So he said, 'Well, if you're going to use figures, what I'd like to see is that the relationship between the husband and wife is kind of a team against the sister-in-law,' which I really didn't see. But, it's his play, so he gets to say."

In the final poster, Albee's whiskey glass makes a cameo appearance, clutched in the husband's hand. Husband, wife and sister- in-law appear in eerie orange and blue hues. Explains McMullan, "The metaphor for me is, here are people that gather every evening and drink themselves blotto and are stuck in certain angry relationships that never change; they are caught. So, they're like flies. The figures themselves are dense and heavy, and this upper-bourgeois interior they're in is lacy and web-like."

By the time he produced his first theater poster in 1976, McMullan had designed covers for Ballantine Books and crafted illustrations for Esquire and GQ magazines. His drawings for a New York magazine story on discos inspired the visual style for "Saturday Night Fever." So McMullan, a graduate of Pratt Institute in New York, was accustomed to demanding art directors and picky editors. Still, he wasn't prepared for the intensely political world of theater.

"Artistic directors are always fighting their own battles--of getting a big star or making a big director happy. One of the things they can throw to the lions, as it were, is the poster. It's like, 'Maybe you're not happy about the casting director or something, but, you know, you can have the poster.' So that occasionally happens where I'll get caught in the crossfire."

Case in point: McMullan points to a small watercolor dominated by a disembodied suit of clothes walking in two opposite directions. It's the "Waiting for Godot" Poster That Never Was. "I wanted to suggest the idea of movement that leads nowhere, this kind of containment, so I thought of a figure that walks both ways. Everybody loved the sketches."

Everybody, that is, except Mike Nichols.

As he was the director of the high-profile revival in 1988, what Nichols wanted, Nichols got. "That was a very loaded situation. Everybody's saying, you've taken this difficult abstract play, you've made this abstract poster. Nichols and his retinue arrived. He acted like I wasn't in the room. He sort of glowered at the sketches, then said, 'Who's going to tell him?' Meaning, who's going to tell McMullan his sketches were no good. It was obvious that no matter what he was shown, at that moment, he was going to hate it. Mike got to fire me the next day."

Such clashes are rare. McMullan's portraits capture a play's essence so aptly that poses from his posters are sometimes incorporated into the staging. For the musical "Anything Goes," Patti LuPone closed the first act with a gazing-over-her-shoulder pose borrowed from McMullan's poster. With "A Fair Country," about an archeologist whose life is falling apart, McMullan portrayed the lead character in a crouch, staring at shards of pottery. After seeing the poster, playwright Jon Robin Baitz incorporated the blocking into his stage directions for the play's opening scene.

"The weird thing is, the poster tends to become truer and truer the longer the play runs," McMullan says. "In some cases, the poster affects the performance to some degree." After Cherry Jones saw his evocative watercolor for "The Heiress," McMullan recalls, "Cherry sent me a note during the rehearsal stage, saying, 'You caught Catherine long before I knew her, and I confess I turned to your poster more than once to center myself in the role.' "

Executive director Gersten, speaking from New York, says: "We always hope that what Jim produces will be a work of art in its own right." And, he notes, the poster lingers on long after the play itself has closed. "When a play closes, there's just memories. The one tangible, material thing that comes out of it is the poster. And the walls here are lined with Jim's three-sheets, and I think they work on the actors. They are the memory of this theater, its aspirations, and it's all conveyed in his posters."

Not a bad legacy. And McMullan, for all his painterly instincts, has no plans to abandon his work-for-hire assignments for the calling of High Art. "I don't feel like I'm in a profession that is standing in for the real profession that I would like. It's much more interesting actually for me to stretch what people think of as illustration toward something that is riskier and more painterly than the other way around."

He adds, "I like the idea of working within something that seems like containment, and then finding ways to turn that to my own devices. I work with a lot of attack, in trying to achieve that Zen- like state of a painter." He mentions that an upcoming New Yorker magazine will feature one of his theater illustrations. "I'm a little bit typecast," he says, "but it's a nice way to be typecast."

 

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