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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Poster Design

A History of Theatre and Play Posters: From Vintage to Modern Day

Looking to design a play poster, theatre flyer, or musical theatre poster? Discover more about the long history of theatre posters, from the earliest playbills of the Middle Ages to vintage theatre posters of the mid 20th Century and the iconic designs that advertise sell-out Broadway shows today. Along the way, pick up tips and templates for creating your own spectacular theatrical posters.

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Illustrated theater poster and flyer template

Whether a musical spectacular or melodrama, a political satire or opera, theatre is the most immediate and engrossing of the performance arts. The posters that accompany theatrical campaigns need to be as dramatic and emotion-stirring as the plays they advertise, enticing audiences into the theatre. Explore the history of theatrical posters and discover the secrets to creating memorable play poster designs.

Discover a range of theatre poster templates, theatre flyer templates and event flyer templates for easily creating your own poster designs for plays, musicals and dance productions on Envato Elements.

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Double Light Photoshop Action for poster design

A Brief History of Theatre Posters and Play Posters

We may have waited a while to get back to the theatre after the pandemic, but take a moment to consider that theatre was banned in England in 1642 during a period of religious upheaval and playhouses remained closed for 18 years before the restoration of the monarchy. As we head into 2022, with audiences starting to return to theatres, it’s clear that theatre has never been more vital for shining a light on our collective social psyche and bringing hungry culture vultures together.

What is a theatre poster called? Today they are sometimes referred to as a show bill, which traces its origins to the first play programmes. The earliest theatre posters are known as playbills, and were in reality small pamphlets which were mostly hand-written. In most examples of European playbills from the 16th and 17th centuries, text is used alongside woodcut-style illustrations to describe the play’s narrative and characters. These early theatre posters really functioned as programmes and were handed out to audiences on the day of the performance by travelling theatre groups or outside the playhouse.

During Shakespeare’s heyday, in the last part of the 16th and early 17th centuries, theatre was an integral part of social and cultural life, and despite the rigid social code of the period, theatre became a social outlet for the melodrama of life, relishing in controversial themes of gender, war, sex, and incest, subjects which were teased on typographic playbills.

A 17th century playbill advertising a performance of Troilus and Cressida. A 17th century playbill advertising a performance of Troilus and Cressida. A 17th century playbill advertising a performance of Troilus and Cressida.
A 17th century playbill advertising a performance of Troilus and Cressida. Wikimedia Commons.

During the later 17th century, letterpress printing became more widespread, allowing playbills to be distributed more widely across cities and towns. In the 1670s, a French theatre company visited London, bringing with them larger format theatre posters printed with not only black ink but also expensive and eye-catching red ink. This larger play poster format became more commonplace by the early 18th century, evolving into the ‘Great Bills’—large-scale designs that featured evocative illustrations of exotic menageries, circus performers, or costumed performers.

By the early 19th century, playbills and theatre posters had returned to a more conservative typographic style, using a variety of headline and body type styles to create hierarchy and drama.

Lithographic printing, which was invented in 1851, transformed the style of play programmes and great bills, allowing theatre owners to use coloured illustrations. These more visually stimulating designs replaced the type-heavy playbills of earlier decades, and laid the foundations for the colourful, highly visual theatre posters we see in wide use today.

 A theatre programme for the burlesque Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué, performed in London in 1889. Produced using lithographic printing, colorfully-illustrated programmes and posters became more commonplace during the late 19th century. A theatre programme for the burlesque Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué, performed in London in 1889. Produced using lithographic printing, colorfully-illustrated programmes and posters became more commonplace during the late 19th century. A theatre programme for the burlesque Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué, performed in London in 1889. Produced using lithographic printing, colorfully-illustrated programmes and posters became more commonplace during the late 19th century.
A theatre programme for the burlesque Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué, performed in London in 1889. Produced using lithographic printing, colourfully illustrated programmes and posters became more commonplace during the late 19th century. Wikimedia Commons.

The early 20th century was the golden age of poster advertising, and theatre posters became ever larger and more vivid. Posters were often constructed of various large sheets, pasted together to create early forms of billboard advertising for melodramas, pantomimes, and dance recitals.

By the 1920s, Art Deco theatre posters featured trademarks of the Jazz Age style, such as geometric borders, stylized illustrations, and decorative typography.

A 1900 lithographic poster illustration for a mind-reading performance. Wikimedia Commons.A 1900 lithographic poster illustration for a mind-reading performance. Wikimedia Commons.A 1900 lithographic poster illustration for a mind-reading performance. Wikimedia Commons.
A 1900 lithographic poster illustration for a mind-reading performance. Wikimedia Commons.
 A 1921 poster for Don Juan at the Carrick Theatre (NYC). Wikimedia Commons. A 1921 poster for Don Juan at the Carrick Theatre (NYC). Wikimedia Commons. A 1921 poster for Don Juan at the Carrick Theatre (NYC). Wikimedia Commons.
A 1921 poster for Don Juan at the Garrick Theatre (NYC). Wikimedia Commons.
A 1930s Art Deco theatre poster for a performance of Abraham Lincoln: The Great Commoner. Wikimedia Commons.A 1930s Art Deco theatre poster for a performance of Abraham Lincoln: The Great Commoner. Wikimedia Commons.A 1930s Art Deco theatre poster for a performance of Abraham Lincoln: The Great Commoner. Wikimedia Commons.
A 1930s Art Deco theatre poster for a performance of Abraham Lincoln: The Great Commoner. Wikimedia Commons.

Although the wartime period disrupted the output of theatres and poster artwork as a result became more limited and sombre, by the 1960s play posters demonstrated some of the most experimental graphic design styles of the time, influenced by the grid-less typography of the Swiss Style and the flamboyant Pop Art movement.

By the 1970s, theatre posters were more likely to feature photographic elements, and savvy theatre owners realised that a single iconic, memorable image was especially effective for promoting the longevity of a show. Iconic poster designs for musical productions such as The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Les Miserables were created over the 1980s, and most of these designs still remain in circulation today. Into the 21st century, theatre production posters continued to feature strong, iconic photographic images to draw in audiences.

Alongside posters and billboards, it is also commonplace for theatres to use showcards. What is a show card? These small single-sheet programmes are inserted into holders and placed on tables inside theatre bars and restaurants. They usually include a programme of the show or advertise upcoming performances.

A 2008 theatre poster design for The Vagina Monologues.A 2008 theatre poster design for The Vagina Monologues.A 2008 theatre poster design for The Vagina Monologues.
A 2008 theatre poster design for The Vagina Monologues. Wikimedia Commons.

Theatre Play Poster Design Today: Common Design Elements

In the digital age, theatre posters continue to be a prominent form of print media. Because theatre is live performance and often restricted to a particular location, print media is important for communicating performances to local audiences. With the introduction of live theatre performances being streamed in cinemas, play posters are also frequently adapted as digital artwork for use on websites, emails and social media.

While the format of theatre posters and play flyers might need to be adapted for digital artwork, tried-and-tested elements, layouts, and styles are still often employed across a range of theatrical poster designs. Here we take a look at some of the common theatre play poster design elements used on theatre posters, programmes, and flyers, to help you create your own effective theatre marketing.

1. Lead Actor Photography

If your theatre production has a well-known name taking the lead, a portrait of the actor in role is an effective technique for drawing in the crowds. A close-up, raw portrait for acting-centric dramas or a body shot of the prima dancer in action, alongside dramatic stage-lighting or smoke effects, can help to give viewers a taste of the atmosphere.

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Photography poster template
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Music or event poster and flyer template
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Digital flyer promotion template

2. Movement and Energy

Live theatre is physical, present, and larger than life, and play posters can communicate this feeling of immediacy with designs that brim with energy and movement. This is a particularly common style for dance theatre, but the same principle can also be applied to theatre posters or play flyers to make viewers feel they are in the heart of the action.

Pair a portrait or illustration with dynamic typography that’s layered in front or partially behind the photography, to allow the subject to jump from the page. Overlaid textures, such as brushstrokes, smoke, or glitch effects, can also help to increase the dynamism in your poster designs.

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Ballet or dance recital poster template
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Double exposure poster template

3. Light Effects

Theatre has a distinctive aesthetic that makes it different from non-live media such as movies. Stage lighting is dramatic, atmospheric, and often much harsher or at least more obvious than in film cinematography. Enhance the lighting in your photography or introduce light effects via Photoshop actions. Coloured lighting can also help to convey a sense of symbology in your poster designs. A cool blue light can convey horror or thriller themes, while red gives an aggressive or murderous atmosphere.

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Theatre school flyer template
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Double Light Photoshop Action
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Dual Light Photoshop Action

4. Cultural Typography

As we’ve seen in our potted history of the play poster, typography has often been a prominent element in theatre poster design. Often considered particularly cultural, live theatre’s intellectual reputation can be enhanced with a heavy use of text in poster layouts. Stylistically, type can be just as visually powerful as imagery, and the choice of typeface can give viewers a clue to the theme or period of the performance.

Type-heavy designs can also be a useful strategy for advertising theatre schedules and festivals, as well as programmes and show cards, which often need to include more details about performance times, dates, and tickets. How can you manage a large amount of type without crowding your poster design? Try feeding text into columns, overlaying type across imagery, or using a diagonal grid to create a Swiss Style effect.

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Repertoire and Programme Poster Template
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Fashionist poster template
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Event Schedule Poster Template
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Typographic Event Poster Template

5. Iconic Imagery

Some of the most successful and iconic poster designs are those that use a single strong image or graphic. These types of poster behave as a sort of logo or brand identity for the play, and are able to have more longevity than using cast imagery. So for performances that are expected to last several seasons, or simply to provide a more memorable visual association for the show, these image-centric posters are an effective and often highly symbolic choice.

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Illustrated play poster template
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Music Poster Flyer Template
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Musical Montage Poster Template

Conclusion: Iconic Theatre Posters

From Art Deco theatre posters to great bills, show cards to musical theatre posters, marketing design for live performance has a long and fascinating history which reaches back to the travelling plays of the Middle Ages. In more recent decades, theatre posters have become increasingly iconic and distinctive, with theatres competing for audiences’ attention with memorable imagery, evocative photography, and creative typography.

If you’re interested in creating poster and flyer designs for theatre, films, festivals, or events, here are some poster template selections and simple tutorials for creating high-impact designs.

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