Purchase Power: The Marketing of Performance and its Discursive Effects

Ashley Thorpe

It is certainly the case that theatrical ephemera have an important place in theatre research, especially when access to the actual performance text – even as a selection of photographs – is compromised.  Indeed, the further away the researcher is from the temporal moment of the performance, the more the subjective nature of documentation is considered as significant to the analysis. The arrangement of playbills, the text used to accompany a production, and the images deployed in advertising are all interpreted as ideological statements that, with the acknowledgment of methodological limitations, might frame the significance of aspects of a production. Ephemera might provide revealing insights into the way a play was marketed, hinting at its position within the cultural and economic context of a specific historical moment. Yet, in the analysis of contemporary performance, the marketing of performance through imagery – on posters, programmes, and merchandise – is rarely the main focus of analysis. In this short piece, I seek to explore how the critical interpretation of design concepts become ideological statements that contextualised readings of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) 2012-2013 production of The Orphan of Zhao.

In his influential essay Ways of Seeing, the art critic John Berger argues that:

Publicity is essentially eventless. It extends just as far as nothing else is happening. […] The fact that publicity is eventless would be immediately obvious if it did not use a language which makes of tangibility an event in itself. Everything publicity shows is there awaiting acquisition. […] It recognises nothing except the power to acquire. All other human faculties or needs are made subsidiary to this power. 1

According to Berger, publicity is in an endless act of deferral, directing towards a future that it, of and by itself, cannot fulfil. It could be argued that this act of deferral is intrinsic to the majority of theatre marketing, where production photos are often substituted for logos (e.g. Cats, Phantom, Les Miserables etc.) or carefully effected photos of the star actor. Undoubtedly, this predicament arises from the design schedules that necessarily demand that all advertising and merchandise are printed in advance of the production itself. To be effective, advertising must be ready weeks, if not months, before the opening night, and must be prepared at a time when key decisions around a performance are still being worked through. This gives the ideological statements present in marketing a greater visibility, and increases expectations around a production. By denying the potential audience any imagery from the production, the function of the images is to provoke curiosity: what will the performance be like? What will I experience? What does the image signal about production values and budget? Will it be a ‘value for money’ experience? Logos are also designed to generate capital. As Dan Rebellato argues in relation to the mega-musical Cats, ‘placing the Cats logo so prominently on the theatre programme ensured that theatregoers carrying the programme home on the Tube or the bus became walking advertisements for the show’.2 Images have immediacy and directness that enables a production to attain an ever-expanding iterability. Ultimately, however, its relationship to the performance itself is secondary. In this respect, theatre marketing is eventless in the sense that it makes no attempt to stand in for the performance itself. It only directs towards an event within which it does not directly participate. Its impact is to increase the purchase power of the production by establishing a connection between the drawing-in of new audiences and the increased circulation of merchandise.

But is this not also an event in its own right? To consider this is, perhaps, to challenge Berger’s assertion that publicity is, of itself, eventless. Publicity certainly performs an action in that it seeks to alter behaviour, for it frames the approach to a performance through the questions it might elicit, and through the products that might be purchased and consumed.  Yet, as was the case with The Orphan of Zhao, publicity also has the capacity to generate controversy, and it is for this reason that I argue against characterising advertising as intrinsically eventless. The poster, programme, marketing, and script of The Orphan of Zhao – all issued in advance of the production – featured the same image, a photograph taken by the photographer M. Scott Brauer. The original photo was part of a series titled Young and Abandoned: Orphans on the Verge of Institutionalisation – forty-eight photos of orphaned children and their carers in China. Brauer described the series as documenting a situation ‘familiar throughout China’:

The children have been abandoned, and their caretakers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, cannot support them financially or emotionally. In some cases, family tragedy took the lives of both parents, in others, Chinese social customs created a situation in which a mother had to leave the child for a new husband and a new life.3

The original photograph featured Fan Lu Yang, a ten-year-old, whose father had died in a coalmining accident, and whose mother had disappeared following diagnosis with dementia. He was photographed living with his grandparents, sitting on a bed in a darkened room.4

The programme (left), advertising (upper right) and play text (lower right) for The Orphan of Zhao (Photograph by the author, front cover image © M. Scott Bauer).

If the original photo aimed to document and highlight the plight of orphans in contemporary China, it is interesting how the RSC cover image decontextualises it. No longer placed in the darkened room of his grandparent’s house, Fan Lu Yang is ‘photoshopped’ against a backdrop of indistinct Chinese written characters (see figure 1). In none of the production literature, nor in the published text, is the boy named. The decontextualisation and anonymisation of Fan Lu Yang in the RSC’s advertising raises difficult questions about the appropriation, and in the profits generated from the purchase of The Orphan of Zhao programmes, posters and play texts, perhaps even the economic exploitation, of the plight of the orphaned ‘Other’. The decontextualisation of the face from the body, and the body from its spatial context, renders the specific political commentary in the original photograph obsolete. Rather, the photo, we might assume, stands to represent the titular Orphan in the play.  Except that the Orphan in the RSC production was not the boy in the photograph, nor was he played by a Chinese, or a British East Asian actor, but by Jake Fairbrother, who is perhaps best known for his appearance in the British hospital television drama Holby City, the James Bond film Skyfall (2012), and his participation in performances of Shakespeare.5

In this sense, the disjuncture between the marketing and the actual casting of the production supports Berger’s reading of publicity as recognising nothing except the ‘power to acquire’.6  The image does not relate to the production: it exists only to encourage potential audiences to buy tickets, buy the programme, or read the play text. It also signals the Orientalist cultural power of the West (specifically the designers who produced the designs) to acquire and decontextualise specific experiences from ‘the East’ for the purposes of commercial profit (have Fan Lu Yang and his grandparents personally benefitted from the profits generated by sales of the book, programme and poster upon which he appears?). Indeed, the production could have used the photograph as a departure point to explore the contemporary Chinese social issues raised by Bauer’s original photograph. Specifically, the sacrifice that Cheng Ying makes in The Orphan of Zhao by allowing his own son to be killed to save the Zhao infant, and the tragic reuniting of Cheng with the ghost of his dead son at the close of the RSC production, might have spoken to the ways in which emotional sacrifices are made within families to maintain the economic status quo. Yet, with its historical costumes and classical Chinese scenography, the performance was resolutely tied to history, and as a comparative comment on Shakespeare.

In contrast to Berger’s claim that publicity is fundamentally eventless, I would argue that in this instance advertising was, itself, an event. Here publicity was performative, and it performed ethnographic objectification and instigated stereotypes of China as victim and Other. It also framed the play through a racialised gaze, fixing the play as a Chinese play. Indeed, one of my colleagues overheard some audience members discussing the production on the bus on the way home. They apparently imagined that the play was going to be spoken in Mandarin, and performed by Chinese actors, and were genuinely surprised that it was not. Given the marketing, an audience member might indeed be quite surprised to find Jake Fairbrother, rather than an actor with Chinese physiognomy (or even Fan Lu Yang himself), performing the role of the Orphan in the production.

In fact, the marketing implied that Asian physiognomy was significant to the production. As the Special Issue highlights, within this context, the presence – or lack thereof – of BEA actors became a focus of attention and critical debate, and colour-blind casting became difficult to achieve. As a consequence, the marketing facilitated new readings of the performance itself that compromised and complicated directorial decisions through a lens of racial otherness. In this respect, the marketing was not eventless; it shaped and marked the performance to which it referred, and paved the way for a controversy that has revived questions about the limits of colour-blind casting, and cast doubt upon the opportunities open to BEA actors in contemporary British theatre.


Ashley Thorpe is a Lecturer in the Department of Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is currently completing a monograph on the performance of Chinese opera in London, as well as co-editing a book on contemporary British Chinese culture. He has published articles in Asian Theatre Journal, Theatre Research International and Studies in Theatre & Performance.  With Amanda Rogers, he is co-editor of Contemporary Theatre Review‘s special issue on the casting of the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao.

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  1. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972), p. 153.
  2. Dan Rebellato, Theatre & Globalization (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) p. 47.
  3. M. Scott Bauer, M. Scott Bauer Photo Archive, <http://mscottbrauer.photoshelter.com/gallery/Young-and-Abandoned-Orphans-on-the-Verge-of-Institutionalization/G0000prythX7hoMk/>  [accessed 1 August 2014].
  4. For the original image and full description, see: M. Scott Bauer, M. Scott Bauer Photo Archive,  <http://mscottbrauer.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Young-and-Abandoned-Orphans-on-the-Verge-of-Institutionalization/G0000prythX7hoMk/I0000ftWseNS3vJk> [accessed 1 August 2014].
  5. For example: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, dir. Nicholas Hytner. London: Olivier, National Theatre, first performed 30 September 2010.
  6. Berger, Ways of Seeing, p. 153.

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