Promoting a show can seem a bit like black magic. If you’ve never done it before, it can be mysterious and frustrating. You can put up the greatest production on the planet, but if there’s nobody in the audience to see it, it can all feel a bit pointless. However, there are some proven tricks to getting people to pay attention to what you’re doing. One of those tricks is to invest in promotional photos for your show. I talked to some of my previous clients to find out what they know about using photos to promote their shows.

Lauren Ash and Adam Cawley are Toronto’s sexiest improv couple. We shot some photos that capture their smoldering chemistry to promote Hot Lawyer, their hilarious improv show.

Hot Lawyer photo Hot Lawyer Adam Cawley and Lauren Ash

Hot Lawyer has gone on to headline festivals in Toronto, New York and Chicago. Ash says great promo photos are a huge asset to a group. “They’ve gotten us a lot of attention, not only from potential audience members but also from improv festival producers and reporters,” she says. “The photos alone get people interested in what we’re all about. They’re memorable and eye-catching and make people want to learn more about us.”

Strong photos can also give you a step up on the competition. “In a market that is saturated with so many different groups, it is imperative that you stand out,” she says. “The promo pic is really the best way to do that.”

Standing out from the crowd and getting attention are really what it’s all about. When I work with artists, I focus on latching on to strong emotions and hot-button ideas. Once you’ve visually tapped into these very powerful forces, the task of getting bums in seats becomes much easier. When comedian and producer Deb Robinson came to me a couple of years ago to shoot a photo to promote her show “Wet and Sticky,” we came up with an image of Deb as a beauty queen, “enjoying” some cereal. Robinson’s emotional commitment to the photo is what makes it leap off the page and grab the viewer’s attention. Since posting it in my online portfolio, that photo has accumulated over 130,000 views.

Deb Robinson Wet and Sticky

“Originally Darryl and I were going change the look of the poster every show, but after the overwhelming response to the picture, we had to keep it,” says Robinson. “It represents the show so perfectly. Every single person has a strong reaction towards that Froot Loops photo. They either love it or they are deeply offended, which is great because it means people are talking about the event.”

All of this talk and buzz is a very good thing for a performer. Comedian and actor Aaron Merke and I have worked together a few times to shoot photos that generate buzz.

Aaron Merke in afro and underwear Aaron Merke urban barbarian

Even while we were shooting these photos, it was hard not to laugh. Merke has parlayed that kind of reaction into spots on MuchMusic and The Comedy Network. He says a great promo shot instantly links your message and your audience.  “You send a statement in seconds and gets people talking about you and your project,” he says.

Merke says a compelling photo makes people ask, “Who is this?” “What do they want?” and “Do I want to be involved?”

“Also I like to be semi-nude any chance I get, which usually gets people talking as well,” adds Merke.

From there, it’s only a short step to media coverage. “A good photo is a key piece to getting media coverage, because people respond immediately to images,” says Laura Hollick. Hollick leads workshops that teach artists how to get the media’s attention. Because Hollick is an artist and also has her own weekly radio show featuring artists, she knows the media business from both sides of the microphone. Her own art has been featured in dozens of publications, as well as on a Bravo TV documentary about her work. Hollick and I have collaborated many times to create evocative images that promote various aspects of her art and her business.

Laura Hollick The Reach Hawk Photo

“There are studies that show articles with pictures get read more than articles without,” says Hollick. “Having a great photo can mean the difference between being on the cover of a magazine or just being listed in the events section.  Which one do you think will get more attention?”

Media-savvy comedian Shelley Marshall knows the answer to that question. We shot a photo that she uses to promote Mother of the Pride, her one-woman show about having two gay children.

Shelley Marshall Mother of the Pride

“Media loves a great photo. Half the work is done for them with a great photo,” she says. “A good picture will get you noticed. A great picture will get you exposure.”

“Photos are far more important than most think. They are part of the branding, the message, the details,” says Marshall. “So much comes along with a great photo: credibility, creativity and much more.”

Marshall says hiring a professional photographer is a worthwhile investment. “You get what you pay for is absolutely true. A credible photographer is more apt to get published opposed to an amateur photo shoot. It also confirms a professional attitude,” she explains. “If you are using the very best photographer, you are showing up-front the value of the production. It can very much be the ‘wow’ factor a show or performer needs to get noticed.”

Colette Kendall is no stranger to the “wow” factor. She has been a long-time believer in using promotional photography to draw attention to her shows. We’ve worked together a number of times over the last few years to create photos for The Tippi Seagram Show and The Cock Whisperer. Kendall’s shows were featured 24 times in publications like The Globe and Mail, The Edmonton Sun and Edmonton Journal, The Winnipeg Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Mirror, The Georgia Straight, Victoria News and many others. Kendall left a trail of half a dozen cover stories as she crisscrossed Canada on the Fringe circuit.

Colette Kendall as Tippi Seagram

“A fab promo photo lets you get that all-important foot in the door,” says Kendall. “Back it up with a great show and before you know it, you and the press are smoking cigarettes and basking in the afterglow.”

That “afterglow” keeps you at your audience’s “top of mind,” providing them a memorable hook on which to hang your name. This has worked well for Liz McEachern. We shot a photo to promote her one-woman show, How Sweet It Is.

Liz McEachern How Sweet It Is

“All I have to do is put my arm in the air and say ‘I’m the girl eating the M&M’s’ and people instantly remember the show,” says McEachern. “People remembered the poster of the show a year later.”

The emotional power of a great photo can give your show a gravitational pull. “Every time I handed out a flyer people would laugh at the photo and ask me what the show was all about,” says McEachern. “It made people want to see the show.”