I understand you’re primarily an actor—and I remember you as the unfairly maligned Samuel on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—but how did you discover that you also wanted to work in design and establish your creative agency TALISMAN? I loved creating that character, and I, too, believe him to be misunderstood. There is a Samuel that lives in all of us. And to share that with others as part of the story of season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was a complete joy.
I understand why you might view my art in terms of a primary discipline; for example, you said I’m “primarily an actor.” I have been honored by the recognition for my work as a storyteller. It is, to be frank, a luxury to be known as anything for any kind of creative work. It is only due to hard work and commitment to craft, conquering rejection—which is a part of any creative endeavor—and holding fast to the conviction you have something to say, something you hope can improve the lives of others. Something that makes them see, or listen, in a new way.
Somewhere in my parents’ house, nestled on a shelf among the books and boxes, the old show programs and signed posters, sits a picture-book interview with me at age five in kindergarten. It’s a small book, a few pieces of printer paper stapled together and glued to a rough self-portrait, which I must have drawn that day in school. Each page of the book contains a preprinted phrase to be completed in an interview with each child: “For breakfast I ate,” or “At home there lives,” or “This weekend I”—a few words exponentially photocopied from so many consecutive academic years that the letters on the page are flecked in white, the pages speckled in toner.
The last page of the interview reads: “When I grow up I will.” My answer: When I grow up I will be a writer and an actor and an artist.
This is to say: I have always been on a ternary path. I’ve always known where I belong in this world, where language and art bring stories to life. The discipline might change; my purpose does not. These parts of myself are always working in concert with one another. And I’ve learned to trust the conviction that acting, writing and designing can fill the days of my life.
This is a path that is mapped but not as publicly. It’s not a path that’s only for me. I’m not the first: it’s for everybody and anybody brave enough to trust their own inherent voice and the different ways that a voice can be expressed. Ultimately, I think that people see this as a gift you give to yourself—the gift of expression. But I believe it to be the best way to give of yourself to others: To offer yourself fully to the world and the community around you. To serve others, not only in one way.
That said, there’s the romance of making art. And then the unromantic part, which, for most of us plebes, is the work and brute force of taking a creative passion and transforming it into a way to make a living. This leads, possibly, to gaining recognition for that work and expanding opportunities for yourself and your collaborators, whom you admire and want to elevate. I am so thankful for the opportunity to expand my design practice, open TALISMAN after months of hard work and finally embody a multidisciplinary practice professionally.
Tell us about TALISMAN’s poster campaign for the Everyman Theatre’s 30th anniversary season. From where did you draw the inspiration for the posters? In terms of inspiration, there is a difference between how I start work on a single poster design and a series for a theater’s season. Each poster in the Everyman @ 30 series needed to be an invitation to an individual story world; I had to capture the beating heart of the particular play through a combination of image and type. When done right, I hope the design will be indelible and becomes a visual representation of the play’s themes.
When designing the key art for an entire institution’s season, though, I had the additional responsibility to weave an artistic connection between each play directly back to the theater’s season as a whole and ultimately to the forward-facing vision of the institution. This became a vital part of the design process. How is each play a part in the greater tapestry of the institution as a whole?
Everyman also remains one of the few theaters in the United States with a full-season resident company. A repertory cast like this is rare; it is something to treasure. I needed to embody that in my art. So, I knew the hidden 30 would also reflect the institution’s values. Everyman is the perfect name for this theater with its acclaimed resident company. As we see the same cast members move into different stories and roles, they embody the archetype of the Everyman. And we can see ourselves in them, inhabiting these roles and experiences.
I had a personal desire to create this emblem for the institution: looking back and looking forward at this Everyman archetype and how the theater has always had this woven repertory of cast, crew and tribe. After all, the 30th anniversary season was a celebration! I aspired to bring a community of artists and audiences together during a time of great joy for the theater. I also wanted to reflect upon the pain and loss from the pandemic and define a changing landscape for the future of this American theater. I wanted to honor the artists and creators who devote themselves to serving their community by using art and stories as their tools for change.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what additional considerations did you have to take with your team, Everyman and the motion posters? How did you use creativity to overcome these challenges? Even as I drafted the season art, the original slate of chows was changing quickly due to the acceleration of the pandemic. I had to re-create show posters multiple times to meet rapidly developing and evolving needs.
It has ultimately taken two years for the initially slated anniversary season to be fully produced. A poster for Sense + Sensibility was originally part of the hidden 30 image, but now it has become an entirely different design, and its position in the grid has been replaced with a poster for Steel Magnolias. I give immense credit to the theater, its staff, artists and craftspeople for finally realizing this complete set of shows. I recognized early on that this project was an opportunity not only to focus on Everyman’s 30 years of leadership in the American theater but on its survival.
I worked closely with the artistic team at the theater, especially founding artistic director Vinny Lancisi and Amy Lebo, director of marketing and communications, to develop the art direction for the season. I had a strong feeling that graphic illustration would be an ideal direction for the project, given that the theater would require new communications and potential design changes quickly, considering the constantly changing nature of a global pandemic. I was excited by the opportunity to treat the poster grid like jazz improv; as opposed to working in chronological order, I decided to create a more dappled effect, where changes or shifts to the season could become an opportunity rather than a struggle. I knew that the hidden 30 would need to be seamlessly integrated and pass by unnoticed until the final reveal.
What do you think are the advantages of motion posters as a medium? I didn’t consider motion as an advantage, per se: I used motion because it was the best tool I knew to serve the content at hand. Anna O’Donoghue, my colleague at TALISMAN, always challenges me to let content inspire form. Once I focused on content, the form came quickly, and the motion posters instantly became the best way for me to tell the stories I wanted to tell. From the start, I knew I absolutely needed to pair movement and music—and commissioned a piece of music where individual melodies could layer on top of each other to create a fully realized piece—just like the final grid image itself and the concept of the hidden “Easter egg” reveal.
When I focused on serving the stories in the best way I knew how and inviting the best collaborators to join me—musician Joe Kye and illustrator and animator Mathieu Maillefer—the project became something truly special. Mathieu and I worked closely on each animation, refining the storyboards and identifying the boundary between poster and animation. It was a very collaborative editing process.
My team and I are eager to continue to explore how motion works in key art. Today, audiences interact with this boundary between print and digital design so frequently that it’s truly exciting to imagine ways to re-envision what key art can do: both for individual productions or films and for institutions working to catalyze storytelling in a visual way.
What are the particular challenges and opportunities of branding for theater and film? Do you find yourself bringing your experience as an actor to these projects? I find myself explaining to others that in the realm of great key art, book jacket design or any identity design project—that these are a form of character building. My approach to creating a role as an actor with a team of filmmakers or theater artists is directly aligned with my process of capturing the heart of a story in image and type.
Each poster has to capture the world of a story, but more importantly, it needs to capture emotion. A passerby needs to look at the key art and say: “I have to see that. I don’t know why, but I feel as if this production was made just for me. It is waiting for me.”
I don’t mean to say it is purely visual. It’s much more than that. It is about finding the crux of the story. If it doesn’t serve the story, it’s not a successful performance or a successful design. If it doesn’t surprise you, it’s not for me. If it doesn’t push the line forward, it’s not for me. I want to be a part of a conversation where my art moves us forward.
Tells us what you would like to see for the future of TALISMAN. Do you think you’ll specialize in entertainment or expand to new areas? I hope that TALISMAN becomes a creative house recognized for crafting visual and written stories in innovative ways. I think the arts and culture space is, of course, the natural fit for our mission, but in creating the company, I aspired to find homes for out-of-the-box design, communications and strategy in unlikely places: healthcare and medicine, transport and hospitality, civic organizations and nonprofits, fashion, banking and finance, architecture, and retail. In fourteen months, I grew my design practice from a solo venture to a team of sixteen designers in six countries worldwide. I want my team to stretch their wings a bit. I want to challenge them and myself to consider how our art can be at the service not only of the arts community but to those who might need it most.
Which designer or design firm do you most admire and why? The reason I created TALISMAN was that there was no one doing this kind of work. There is no model for this: we Frankensteined the creative agency model, Warhol’s Factory, and Moholy-Nagy’s relentlessly experimental work at the Bauhaus as we imagined what TALISMAN could become.
There are so many illustrators and artists whose work I admire and love. I’m influenced by interdisciplinary artists such as David Hockney, Helen Macdonald, Peter Mendelsund and Joni Mitchell. Their artmaking has no boundaries; each creative practice illuminates the other.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the creative field? I have resources and reading lists for young artists on my website, jacobkemp.com.
My mantras this month are:
Direction is more important than speed.
Eyes in your own lane.
Celebrate and elevate your friends. There is abundance for everyone. Promise.
Write thank-you notes. Write to tell new artists you love their work, asking for nothing in return.
Stop looking for mentors. Be a mentor.
Give back. Then give more back to nonprofits you care about. It’s not only about money; donate your time, services, art and Instagram feed. Keep asking how you can help others.
Have a dog in the studio. Preferably a rescue or foster from Freedom Street Rescue.
Move your body multiple times every day because you have a body. You are not just a mind.
Only you can define who you are, your style, your disciplines or your worth.
Shattering everyone’s expectations for you is one of life’s greatest gifts.
Oh, and one last question: Who would you be, what would you say and what would you do if you weren’t afraid? ca