A Life in the Theatre: Photographer Joan Marcus

By Mervyn Rothstein
19 May 2006

Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft.



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"A photograph of a play or a musical should be evocative," Joan Marcus says. "It should be compelling. It should pique your interest. The mood, the lighting, the composition should make you want to know more about what's going on - when you look at that picture, it should make you want to see the show."

Marcus knows what she is talking about. She has been photographing stage productions in Washington and New York for more than 25 years, and is considered one of the preeminent Broadway photographers. If you see a photo of a play or a musical in a newspaper, a magazine or a theatre lobby, there's a good chance Marcus was behind the camera. Her more than 100 Broadway lens credits include the current hit revival of The Pajama Game, Jersey Boys, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Light in the Piazza, Spamalot, Doubt, The Lion King, Wicked, Mamma Mia! and The Phantom of the Opera. Her first Broadway show was Lillian, the 1986 one-woman play starring Zoe Caldwell as the playwright Lillian Hellman.

"I never set out to do this," says Marcus, who grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from George Washington University in the 1970's. "Photography was a hobby, but it was never going to be a professional thing. I worked at the Kennedy Center in Washington in college, at the American Film Institute, and before going to graduate school to study landscape architecture I needed to save money. The Kennedy Center had a photographer, Richard Braaten. I got a job there printing for him."

It was, she says, "a good fit. Before I got the job, I had no theatre background. But I found that I liked being around the theatre. I liked the process of putting a play together, of being a part of it." She started freelancing as a photographer for several smaller theatres in Washington and began photographing for the Kennedy Center.

Among the pivotal events in her career was when Lillian, which started in Washington, moved to New York, "and the producers started using me in New York, and when Les MisÚrables, which was also in Washington, decided to reshoot photographs and used me. The producer, Cameron Mackintosh, and Richard Jay-Alexander" - the show's executive producer and associate director - "gave me a huge start."

Then she met someone else - Adrian Bryan-Brown, one of the top Broadway press representatives, who became her husband. She moved to New York. And then Martha Swope, for years the leading theatre photographer, retired. "I was a new face," Marcus says, "and people gave me a chance."

What makes Marcus so successful? "She is like a photo sprite," says Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, for which Marcus has shot The Lion King, Aida, Beauty and the Beast and Tarzan. "The obvious thing is that she takes glorious photographs. But beyond that, she knows how to be in the space and in the room and be completely present, so you know she's there, and simultaneously be completely invisible, so she can capture that moment."

Marcus has accomplished so much in the last quarter century - but is there something she would like to have a chance at in the future?

"The circus," she says. "I'd love to photograph the circus."