In late July I decided on a whim to do a photograph for the poster for Bye Bye Birdie. I had been illustrating everything, but thought a photo of whoever was playing Birdie would be fun - I basically wanted to do something like an old Elvis movie poster with it.
I admit that day was a rough one. I was exhausted, had a blinding headache, and was in a really crappy mood. I'd been working all day and trying desperately not to fall asleep, and remember thinking the last thing I wanted to do was turn on my "photograph a stranger" charm and do a shoot with half a migraine. But then I felt terrible about that, because I knew people were making a big effort and I wanted to do a nice job for everyone. I was feeling kind of punchy, so I drew all over the settlement bag. So you can see what kind of goofy mood I was in that day.
Katie picked me up after my shift was over, and said "Andrew's waiting for you over at the theatre! Are you ready?" I thought "Oh, alright, Teeple, suck down some Tylenol and do this."
Five minutes later I met this Andrew guy outside the State Theatre: a tall, wiry man dressed like Fonzie with a pair of gigantic aviators. His hair was sculpted and plastered around his head like Ken Doll hair and he seemed super enthusiastic and friendly. I immediately forgot the headache and bad mood. All I could think was, "OH MY GOD, WHO THE HELL IS THIS GUY? THIS IS GOING TO BE REALLY FUN!"
And it was!
It was the first time I'd ever been on the State Theatre's stage, and the crew had generously created some lighting effects for the photos. They were so accommodating and the whole experience was delightful.
I just let him be Birdie during the shoot and didn't give a whole lot of direction, other than "HOW ABOUT A PETE TOWNSHEND WINDMILL? Okay, now jump up like a sitcom freeze frame! Okay, try holding your cigarette European style." (I probably just should have said "hold it like a joint.") I couldn't think of any directions because at that point I wasn't sure what the shoot was, other than a vague hope I'd figure out a poster.
Anyway, Andrew was absolutely the best, most energetic model I've ever had. He brought a lot of playful energy to the pictures and embodied his character to the point where I couldn't initially tell if he was method acting or just like that in real life. It shows in the portraits. I've shot I don't know how many portraits of people over the years, and working with an actual actor really did make things easier. I went home that evening feeling like I'd gotten a shot of B12, it was such a good time.
A couple of nights later I had to get started on the poster. Deadline was looming and I had gotten roped into doing the set design for this play, as well. It took a few false starts and broken ideas to work through it. Here's a glimpse at the process I went through to figure it out.
First, I tried the idea of painting Conrad Birdie in watercolor, with sort of a whimsical hand-drawn font like the one for the original "Bye Bye Birdie" movie above. It was not one of my best efforts. I thought his body came out fine and even liked how the jeans and jacket shading worked out, but I was having a hard time getting the face right. It was frustrating.
Then fate stepped in: I accidentally splattered ink all over the face with the India Ink dip pen. After swearing at the drawing a few minutes, I cut out the body and laid it out on the table to see if I could work out the general composition. No dice. It was really frustrating me that I had sort of a half idea, but couldn't see it and was failing miserably.
I wanted to do an homage to the original source stuff because I had done it with Little Shop of Horrors and liked the Roger Corman references, but I could not get the hang of this one at all. Then it just got ridiculous and I gave up for a couple of hours and had a beer. Here's how ridiculous it got after that beer:
After mulling it over in my head a little while, I decided that I might as well just use a straight-up photo instead of the painting, since I'd ended up cutting out Andrew's head from the source xerox and sticking it on the painted version like a macabre paper doll.
Next step was to figure out how to lay out this thing digitally. It had been a while since I worked in design mode, so it was hard to shift gears back to problem solving. I had gotten so used to old fashioned illustration all summer. It's such a gear shift to go from one kind of brain activity to another, and I have an especially hard time making that switch if I've been doing one thing for a while. I have no idea how some people multitask.
For some ideas, I watched the opening sequence of "Bye Bye Birdie" where Ann-Margret sings "byyyyye byyyye Birrrrd-heeee" on a treadmill. It's an iconic scene, but the whole film opens with a spinning newspaper announcing "CONRAD BIRDIE DRAFTED!" So I thought it would be fun to do an homage to that. I did know that song wasn't in the play, but everyone remembers the Ann-Margret dance. Also, it was one of my favorite scenes in "Mad Men."
I made the newspaper with a couple of the photos from the shoot and made up some "interviews" using snippets from the songs in the show. I aged it in a program called Retromatic.
From there, I wasn't sure what to do. I tried this layout, but it didn't look right. It felt really harsh and the titling wasn't right either.
I desperately asked my friend Toni for some ideas, and she sent me a picture of this poster, suggesting I play around with the composition more like an actual old rock movie poster than the one advertising the old Bye Bye Birdie movie.
It was exactly what I needed. I loved the corny tagline at the top so I played with that, and I had the right fonts, too. I went with a minimalist white background instead of a dark one, and it finally clicked. A little bit of adjustments with the text, and I finally had the Birdie poster finished.
The poster was a huge hit with the State College Community Theatre. It was one of those things where all of the elements just worked. From there, I designed four buttons to sell during the show, which tied into the poster and also old fan club buttons. These were a hot seller during the showings.
The cast all wanted t-shirts, so I designed a quickie based on the fan club buttons. I figured it might have been a little weird for Andrew to have everyone wearing shirts with his face on them so I asked if it was alright first, but I had a hunch he would be very popular with the middle school and cougar set, because duh - he's smokin' hot. It paid off! We sold over 100 of the buttons, which paid for the paint! I totally exploited him for a good cause.
On opening night it was a crazy sight to see all of the kids in the cast burst out of the theatre wearing the shirts and buttons. I'd never seen my work all over the place like that and it was a little overwhelming. I choked back some tears, I admit.
Also, it's a good thing those awesome sunglasses were immortalized. They got broken within the week.
Anyway, this was the very first cohesive marketing campaign I've ever worked on, and even though it was an arduous process working it out, it ended up being a successful one I am very proud of and sincerely enjoyed doing every step of the way.
I am very grateful that Andrew was such a good sport in letting me experiment with his image. I learned a lot in the process and he got some well-deserved celebrity treatment for a couple of weeks. I worked with him quite a bit doing the sets, as well, which was a blast. In addition to being a terrific painter, it was a real privilege to see his own process in developing the character, from the photo shoot day when he didn't really have that worked out, to what we ended up seeing on stage a few weeks later. I respect him for his dedication in bringing his version of Conrad Birdie to life. His hard work paid off, too - he was mesmerizing on stage. I admit I watched every performance (except one, when I had to make more buttons to sell).
All in all, working on the artistic team for Bye Bye Birdie was a completely transformative, almost spiritual experience. It's hard to explain, but a lot of major shift changes happened during production. I've found my calling, for sure - I really enjoy community theatre and the experience was so positive overall. I love working in the wood shop - the smell of fresh-cut pine makes me happy and reminds me of my grandpop. I like being able to paint all day and listen to music. I like building things. I really love doing set design, creating the magic of theatre, and most of all, working with others. It reminded me of the best parts of art school: lots of coffee and nicotine, sharing music, telling stories and making things. It filled a much-needed void in my life - I realized I was very unhappy working alone all the time and it was driving me nuts. I gained a ton of experience, loads of new friends, and learned so much from incredibly talented and dedicated people!
Whatever path my life takes me on, I'm very happy I've returned to doing what I love. The pay is rotten and the hours are murderous, but it's my happy place and that's all that matters. Who knows, maybe I'll get back into acting, too.
It's all good!!