Over the last three years, mainstage theatre promotional photography has become largely a festival of context-free actor portraits on white backgrounds. There are some good reasons for this. It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s clean and chic. It makes life easier for directors whose works are programmed months in advance, who have no idea what their show is going to look, sound and feel like.

But it also means that theatre companies are spending less time creating really striking, conversational promotional images. For me, the best promo shots are the ones I keep wanting to re-see. They ask questions. They establish character relationships. And most importantly, they whisper a little about how a show is going to feel. They can be sexy, or devastating, or confusing, or amusing in a way that a portrait can’t be. Theatre has the power to be larger than life. It might be old fashioned, but I miss seeing mainstage brochures that achieved the same thing.

The whole trend started with Belvoir, I think. Their particular skill, though, was in keeping their images stark, but adding something to give them more context. Their 2011 season brochure promo images were, now that I think of it, one of the inspirations behind ‘Clutch’, my year-long text-on-image photo series. I love these – they capture the suspension of belief, the magic rising from the ordinary that only theatre can provide.


The text in these production promo shots, too, helps flesh them out. There’s an ironic enigma here that I enjoy.


Since then, STC, MTC, Griffin and Malthouse have all joined the stark portrait revolution (with some colour overlay, paint streaks and cardboard cutouts to keep things interesting). But I miss the days when seeing the brochure photos was just as exciting for me as the shows they were advertising.

Which brings me to Garth Oriander. He shot the Malthouse promo images for years, and his work was gorgeous. The photos he created were rich, colourful, sumptuous, sexy.

Look at this. It’s the promo image for ‘Woyzeck.’ It’s perfect. The contrast, the way the concrete backdrop seems almost metallic. The juxtaposition between Tim Rogers’ tattoos, top hat and singlet. He’s a bogan prince. And his expression – you can hear that laugh. It’s so alive. Fuck yeah.


This is his image for ‘A Golem Story.’ It’s primal, erotic, strange and intimate. It caught the base ritualism of the show – this photo belongs in Anna Cordingley’s world of candles and dark steel chandeliers. It belongs to the sound design of rolling Hebrew voices and wavering melodies. It feels ancient and deep.


Here’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.’ That blood red. That vignette. The gladwrap. The lip bite. I probably would have cropped it above Benedict Samuel’s underwear, but it’s glorious. And, relevantly, it made me book for the show. Without knowing anything except what was in this image. That’s promotion working.


I am beginning to realise that it’s two things that really do it for me about these photos: the colour, and the sex. The saturation of both grabs me and draws me in. I want to know more. This is for ‘Half Real’.

half real malthouse

rg_malthouse_wideweb__470x316,0 This was the point at which I stopped being able to find high res images for this article. Google image search, you fail me. Anyway. This is for Tartuffe. The crucifixes and the urinal yellow remind me of Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’. The ringflash lighting makes the image look like Vice Magazine, like club photography. It’s outrageous and blasphemous.

DIE WINTEREISSE Malthouse Theatre Image credit Garth Oriander Pictured James O'Hara, Paul Capsis and George Shevstov_full

And this is for ‘Die Wintereisse.’ I remember when this shoot happened, because the Malthouse Facebook page was trying to get rid of the hundreds of foam blocks they used to create the igloo. I appreciate that. Creating a world for the images, not just for the show it advertises. And yes, it’s more wasteful than simple portraiture. But again, I wanted to go to this world. The glow from the heater ties this all together, colour-wise. It’s soft and moving. And I love the defiance in Paul Kapsis’ posture.

LOOK RIGHT THROUGH ME Malthouse Theatre Image credit Garth Oriander, pictured Fiona Cameron and Gerard Van Dyck_full

Finally, this is for Malthouse’s collaboration with KAGE and Michael Leunig – ‘Look Right Through Me.’ It’s such a complex image. There’s a tension in the background green – there’s a sense of the natural world in there, but a world polluted – toxic, strange, alien. The light on the dancers is cold, uncaring. But that butterfly – hope. Tiny, fleeting, beautiful. It’s an image of sensitivity and power.

Garth has a site which can be accessed here. It doesn’t have a huge amount on theatre work on it, but if you scroll back through ‘People’, you’ll see some familiar faces. I recommend having a meander through Google images, too. You can also see some behind the scenes footage of him shooting the ‘Tis Pity’ photos here. With a Hasselblad. Dayum. Bonus points go to that video for featuring Marion Potts swearing.

I miss these kind of images – their colour, their life, their depth. I’m holding out hope that in the years to come, the mainstage marketing teams will drift back to promotional imagery with a focus on storytelling. They’re not easy images to shoot. They require time, money, styling, locations – compared to a portrait shoot over a white background, they’re a pain in the ass. But at the end of the day, theatre is about creation. And promotional images deserve a little magic, too.

S x

Belvoir photography by WILK; all other images by Garth Oriander.


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