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Alistair Smith: What future for West End poster pioneers?

Theatre posters in the West End. Photo: Thinglass/Shutterstock.com Theatre posters in the West End. Photo: Thinglass/Shutterstock.com
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West End posters are one of Theatreland’s most distinctive features. These images – spotted on the side of a bus or alongside the escalators in the underground – are often the first glimpse that tourists and out-of-town theatregoers have of a show. Sometimes, they are their only glimpse.

When done well, the images on these posters stick in the mind and can become as iconic as the show itself. Think of those Cats eyes, or the two witches whispering on the Wicked poster, or the distinctive, angled typography of the old National Theatre posters.

For the past decade, the West End poster business has been a duopoly. Dewynters ruled the roost from the late 1970s, before AKA (originally Adam Kenwright Associates) was founded in the mid-1990s. A decade ago, Dewynters was still the clear market leader, but recently its younger rival has overtaken it and AKA is probably now a nose ahead of Dewynters.

Both are entering a period of significant turbulence. AKA has been bought by private equity firm Providence (which also owns Ambassador Theatre Group) and there are concerns about whether this might affect its relationships with independent producers. Meanwhile, as detailed on our front page this week, Bob King, the key creative force behind Dewynters for much of the past few decades, is leaving. One would expect this to also lead to question marks in some producers’ minds.

This shake-up at AKA and Dewynters could be an opportunity for one of the smaller theatre marketing firms (or a firm from outside theatre) to step in, or it could spur a reshaping of the sector as producers move away from traditional forms of marketing. Print is not as all-powerful as it was and there are opportunities in the digital sphere, where start-up costs are lower.

Welsh fight arts cuts

Sadly, as predicted, this looks set to be the year of local arts cuts. Cardiff is first on the chopping block, but it is encouraging to see bosses from National Theatre Wales, Welsh National Opera and the Arts Council of Wales uniting to oppose the £700,000 of cuts. Similarly coordinated efforts will be needed across the UK.

I’d encourage theatres to engage with campaigns such as My Theatre Matters! and What Next? to draw on combined resources. Protecting local funding will be a tougher argument to win than central government support, but the industry is more likely to succeed if it speaks with one voice.

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