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New Work: The Public Theater

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Fourteen summers ago Paula Scher designed a poster for the New York Shakespeare Festival that introduced a new identity for the Public Theater, a program that would eventually influence much of the graphic design created for theatrical promotion and for cultural institutions in general. Now, with the campaign for the 2008 Shakespeare in the Park productions (Hamlet and Hair), Scher introduces a refreshed identity for the institution.

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For the updated identity, being produced in conjunction with a major renovation of The Public’s multi-theater complex on Lafayette Street, the letterforms have been redrawn using the Hoefler & Frere-Jones font Knockout. The new system is more refined as it retains the active nature of the original but provides more of a structure, while the change from a vertical to horizontal orientation has the effect of making the logo more architectural.

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This new graphic system can be seen in this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park posters that utilize the strict 90° angles of a De Stijl-inspired grid. Retained is the bold Victorian wood block type but now, the space is organized by angled printers rules, a distinctive throwback that adds structure while it references wood block type. “The energy of the identity is as active as ever, but it is a little more structured, a little more refined,” says Scher. “After 14 years it’s clear that the original identity had a lot of power, and while the system cannot return to that original, we can return energy to the form. It’s a bit like New York—it needs to constantly be changing.”

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Scher has also designed the exterior scaffolding signage for the upcoming renovation by Polshek Partnership Architects and will be designing the environmental graphics for the new facilities. The mid-nineteenth century Renaissance Revival building has served as The Public’s home since the theater moved into the former Astor Library in 1966 when Joseph Papp, The Public’s founder, saved the building from demolition.

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Scher, who has served on the Board of Trustees for the theater, first designed the identity in 1994 when retained by The Public’s producer, George C. Wolfe. Responding to the organization’s mission to provide accessible and innovative performances, Scher created a graphic language that reflected street typography in its extremely active, unconventional and almost graffiti-like juxtaposition.

The first logo Scher designed was an amalgamation of sans serif American wood type styles inspired by a demonstration of typographic weights featured in Rob Roy Kelly’s book American Wood Type. The logo was organized to emphasize the word “public” as that is the word that best expresses the spirit of the institution. The entire range of type can be read in the word as it transitions from the thick P to the thin C. The logo was urgent but accommodating, as elegant skeins of type bristled with one another. “The variety of faces and weights formed a kind of democratic action painting in the elements of the identity,” Scher has said.

The 1995 posters Scher designed for The Public Theater’s production of Savion Glover’s Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk featured the wood typefaces used throughout The Public’s identity. The play’s title and theater logos surrounded the tap artist in a typographical be-bop, like urban noise. And for the first time, advertising for The Public appeared all over the New York City landscape, from Chelsea to Harlem, in Times Square, at the Lincoln Tunnel, on city buses, and most fittingly, beneath one’s feet on the sidewalk.

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After this campaign, The Public’s typographic style popped up everywhere, from magazine layouts to advertising for other shows. In fact, the whole style of theater advertising changed and everything began to be displayed in blocky wood type in all caps. The Public’s campaigns have had to continuously change to stay fresh in the city’s highly competitive theatrical market.

The Public celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2005. That same year George Wolfe left and Oskar Eustis joined as artistic director. As part of the organization’s anniversary campaign, the identity was redrawn using the font Akzidenz Grotesk. The word theater at the bottom of the logo was dropped, placing even more emphasis on the word public and the organization as a whole, as opposed to a specific location (the theater building).

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The 2008 identity is even more definitive as the letterforms are now capped by a right-angled period, while the functional sans serif typeface reasserts the theater’s mission to provide affordable and accessible productions. To a certain degree, all three version of the logo share a common structure that in the dense spacing of the letterforms, as well as their variant widths and slightly exaggerated verticality, references the architecture of the city. It is this system that has made the logo particularly adaptable for renewal. “You can basically take any version of sans serif font, organize it in the same way and with the same proportions and it would be recognizable as The Public’s logo,” says Scher. “The system was designed to be flexible, because we knew it would need to be handled by individual designers over the years.”

On the occasion of the launch of the refreshed identity, here is a look at 13 years of Scher’s posters for the New York Shakespeare Festival, now called Shakespeare in the Park. (Scher took one year off, 2002, when the campaign was designed in house.) The first design project Scher undertook for The Public was the campaign for the 1994 Shakespeare in the Park productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Two Gentlemen of Verona, and that first poster borrowed from the tradition of old-fashioned English theater announcements as well as the bold language of wood type Scher was developing for The Public identity. Over the years, the posters have built on that language in interesting ways that have often ended up changing the identity itself.

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Individually the posters also tend to reflect what is going on culturally at the time, for example posters for the 1995 performances of The Tempest and Troilus and Cressida carried the political and promotional message “Free Will” that was not only an advertisement for the free performances, but also as rallying cry to arts supporters to exercise their public influence as that year a conservative Republican Congress was threatening federal funding of the arts.

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The 1996 poster for the productions of Henry V and Timon of Athens afforded Scher some of the most playful typography of the series. “I call this poster simply ‘The Vee,’ because the big V held the whole poster together,” she says.

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Scher combined her trademark handwriting with wood type in the 1997 poster for On the Town and Henry VIII. The season represented the culmination of Papp’s ambition to produce all of Shakespeare’s plays at the Delacorte. The marathon took ten years and its success is noted on the left side of the poster.

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The typography of the 1998 poster emphasized the melodrama of the two plays featured, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth.

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While winking at news headlines during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the posters for The Taming of the Shrew and Tartuffe singled out the words “lust,” “shrew” and “tart” in a degraded fluorescent red.

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For the 2000 design of the poster for Winter’s Tale and Julius Caesar, Scher reversed form and did a deliberately pastel poster. The design also subtly related the state of print in the millennium—on the Web.

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The 2001 poster for Measure for Measure and The Seagull doubled as a map of Central Park. “It took me seven years to realize that the park is the same proportion as the posters,” says Scher.

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In 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, a poster for Henry V featured a quote from the play (“We doubt not of a fair and lucky war…”). Due to budget constraints from the weakened economy, only one play is produced for the next two years.

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The 2004 poster for Much Ado About Nothing was the only photography based poster and “the one I like the least,” says Scher. But the lush image of the park at night perfectly captured the romanticism of the play.

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Posters for the 2005 plays As You Like It and Two Gentlemen of Verona ushered in Akzidenz Grotesk as the identity’s new principal font.

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In 2006 the Akzidenz Grotesk was extended and “War” was declared for productions of Macbeth and Mother Courage and Her Children.

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A corrective slate of the romantic comedies Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2007 led to “Free Love” in the park and an Akzidenz Grotesk that was ardently italicized and provocatively rounded.

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The 2008 poster for Hamlet and Hair introduces the identity in Knockout—and the skull of Yorick topped by a calligraphic mohawk.

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