Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Feature: Dahlia Katz and a Theatre Photography Mini-Masterclass

(photo credit: Scarlet O'Neil)
Theatre Photography Mini-Masterclass
by Dahlia Katz 

[Dahlia Katz is a Toronto photographer, theatre director/dramaturg, and winner of the Charpo-Toronto Photo of the Year 2012.]

Putting on a play?  If you want an audience, a buzz, a memory, a record of your work... then you need a photographer.  Here's a quick lesson on how to incorporate professional photography into your production.  Plan ahead and consider the following.

There are three times when you should ideally be hiring a photographer:
  1. Immediately after casting (The Branding Image),
  2. Halfway through the rehearsal process (Rehearsal hall shots)
  3. The day of your tech-dress rehearsal (Production stills and archiving)
The Branding Image

The timing: As soon as possible after casting.
The message:  “This show is superlative, and here's its essence, in a nutshell.”

Your Branding Image is the brand for your production.  It is the image that's going to be on your posters, handbills, website, Facebook page, etc. It can be carried forward into remounts, follow you on tour, and live forever in your portfolio and everyone else's who worked with you on the show.  It can be one of the most important things that make your show memorable and breeds positive feelings about your company's work.  Even if you don't put your actors in your Branding Image, have a strong secondary image of your main cast members that you can circulate to the press.  An original photograph can be the most inexpensive way of procuring the rights to an image for your marketing efforts.

As soon as you're thinking about any of the visual aspects of performance (design, venue, etc.) you should be dreaming up your Branding Image.  Contact a photographer, share your vision, expect to collaborate.  Unlike your production team, your photographer is on a limited, short-term contract and is not required to read the script, so you should be able to describe the show in effective and concise language.  Know what's most interesting and exciting about the show and be ready to speak to it in a way that'll inspire your photographer.  It doesn't have to be elaborate or complicated, just something that'll stand out.

Tips: Schedule this shoot before auditions; this way you can provide as much notice as possible for the new cast members.

Rehearsal hall shots

The timing: At least once, after the halfway point in the rehearsal process.
The message:  “We are working hard and diligently.  Look forward to the result.”

This engagement is somewhat optional, however when using social media to market your show, the time that passes between the release of your Branding Image and opening night can be a long time in internet-years, so visual reminders and new information are good to circulate to remind interested folks that your show is coming up.

Once your blocking is established and some exciting action is taking place during rehearsal, it's helpful to have good-quality, high-resolution images to share.  Your smartphone  may not perform admirably under the standard lighting conditions of a rehearsal hall or other indoor space, so an hour of a photographer's time can prove to be worth the relatively minor expense.  These photos are also good for publications who may be interested in doing a special-interest story on one of your actors, for example.

Tips: Rehearsal hall shots can easily look cluttered.  Prepare the space by clearing walls and floors as much as possible, leaving shoes and coats outside.  

Request that your actors wear solid coloured clothing without visible brand names, and tie long hair back.

Get a yearbook-style photo of the director at work.  The press may want to use this.

Production stills and archiving

The timing: Just before tech-dress, 45 to 90 minutes.
The message: “Here's a glimpse of the action. It's live, alive, and of excellent quality. It's worth getting off the couch to see it for yourself.”

A photocall is critical for every new production.  It only takes about an hour, and is the kind of stuff the press loves.  Great production stills can get featured in major publications for free, equivalent to thousands of dollars in purchased ad space.  Everyone gets excited about seeing their friends and family in these shots and shares them with people they know.  

Have a shot list prepared when your photographer arrives.  Have your stage manager ready to set the light cues and possibly adjust them at the photographer's request.

Your press shot list should include:
  • A shot of the major players together
  • A shot of each main character featured in an interesting moment, preferably opposite a character they share a major relationship with in the story
  • Closeups
  • Action, reaction, mystery, intrigue
Your archive shot list should include:
  • One of the whole set in major lighting cues
  • One of the whole cast, in costume
Tips:  Choose your shots as great (one-page) moments in the show that are full of expression, emotion, or tension.  Select the moment's starting line in the script, and have the photographer shoot the scene as it's happening.

Avoid spoilers!

You need at least six shots for the press.  Aim for 10 moments, allowing for about five minutes of shooting time each, and 10 total minutes for changes.

When you receive the finals from the photographer, rename each file with the featured actors' names and photographer's business name, so the press can credit folks accordingly.  (e.g., Laila Smith as Hedda Gabler – photo by Mala Singh.jpg).  Try using a dropbox service or upload them to your company website for easy transfer by URL instead of emailing large attachments.

Unless your production is outdoors in the daytime, most consumer-grade digital cameras and SLRs can't capture a quality image in the lighting conditions theatrical production settings present.  Your theatre photography is worth paying for because the equipment required to produce it is valuable.  So are the experience and knowledge of the person providing it; taking a three-dimensional spatial composition and translating it into an equally riveting two-dimensional framed image is itself an especial art.

Theatre is an ephemeral thing.  Take the time and the money to memorialize it with dignity, sophistication and professionalism.  The press, your audiences, your peers, and posterity will reward you for it.

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