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James McMullan: Imagining the Scene

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Theater posters represent a unique art form. Graphically intriguing and designed to catch the eye, in a single moment, a good poster says enough about a play to entice audiences – yet does not risk alienation by revealing too much.

Tapping into the core idea of a play and interpreting it in a single iconic image is a talent that Sag Harbor’s James McMullan has mastered. For 23 years, McMullan has been the principal poster artist for Lincoln Center Theater productions. From “South Pacific” to “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Carousel,” McMullan’s work is instantly identifiable and always unique.

By its nature, poster art is fleeting — pasted up on train station platforms or in subway corridors, it is both transit and transient. Yet long after the plays have closed, many of McMullan’s posters remain larger than life (literally) and continue to persist in the mind’s eye.

Fans of McMullan’s work can see some of his most famous posters up close and personal in “McMullan’s Theater Posters: First Sketches to Final Art” on view through September 8 in the Avram Gallery at Stony Brook Southampton. The exhibit features more than a dozen full size McMullan posters, along with his original artwork for each. Also on view are four projects which show his entire working process from pencil sketch to final product — complete with photographs, rejected sketches and alternate versions.

“People are always amazed that these originals are so tiny yet they blow up very big,” notes McMullan, holding his latest mock-up for “Dividing The Estate” a poster he is currently designing for Horton Foote’s play starring Elizabeth Ashley which opens at Lincoln Center in October.

McMullan almost always portrays key characters from the play in his posters. Through photographs — ideally taken of the actual actors, though he will use stand-ins if necessary — he strives to capture the essence of the play in a single pose.

“That is really my take on the play — the pose,” explains McMullan. “It’s important for me to find that moment of connection in the play. What am I interested in? What connects to my own psychology?”

“It’s what every artist does,” he says. “Within the subject matter you find the hot spot, the place that really interests and intrigues you and makes you want to go in. It’s a point of entry. I know what the play’s about — but where do I get into the play?”

Many times, that answer reveals itself with help from the actor who brings his or her own unique take and mannerisms for the character to the photo session.

“Every person gives you a new kind of landscape of detail, particularly in the way people move,” adds McMullan. “I like to immerse myself in the ideas and details of the photograph, and then at a certain point during the process, I stop looking at the photograph. I’ve internalized what’s in the photo and draw without it.”

The process has worked well for McMullan, whose reputation is now such that directors often insist on a McMullan poster for their Lincoln Center productions. He notes that it’s always important that they be included in the discussion as well.

“I read the script two or three times and talk to the director and playwright if available,” says McMullan. “One thing I don’t want to happen is that the director doesn’t feel like I listened to him and taken into consideration what he’s thinking.”

While many of the ideas for McMullan’s posters gel organically through a flash of inspiration, there are other times when the process is a struggle — particularly when a director has preconceived notions about what a McMullan poster should look like.

“It starts with this idea that they love me enough to want my poster,” says McMullan. “Then as it’s going on they think, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a hand in Jim McMullan’s poster?’”

“If my first art doesn’t go through, I do a second one adjusting to what they said. Then it goes to a third one and after that it becomes a long winded situation,” he grins. “If I didn’t have a streak of masochism, I’m not sure I would be able to do it as long as I have.”

“McMullan’s Theater Posters: First Sketches to Final Art” runs through September 8 at the Avram Gallery at Stony Brook, Southampton, 239 Montauk Highway.