Justin Robertson, aka Squigs has been a fixture in the Broadway community for the past 6+ years. His unique artistic style is so well loved, that it’s no surprise his Lights of Broadway cards were an instant hit with Broadway fans and collectors. We chatted with Squigs about his experience with theater and art.
Serena: Can you tell us about your background in art?
I don’t really have a formal education in art or illustration, but I have taken classes along the way. When my folks saw that I had some abilities, they put me in a watercolor class and that sort of thing. I started college as a film major and switched to theater halfway through. I had done theater in school and then I felt that was more of a fit. So I am an actor and this whole illustration thing came out of being able to draw and also being a poor college student when I was starting off and wanting to give a closing night gift to fellow actors. I started drawing everyone in the cast for closing night, and people would joke that I would just get cast in shows because they would get a drawing on closing night. So I still try to get on stage now and then, but primarily right now I am doing the artwork.
S: What kind of shows were you in? Any memorable performances?
Most recently I was on the Playhouse. I played Marcelus in The Music Man in Cape Cod and then the revival of Cole Porter’s Can‑Can out of Papermill a couple of years ago. Most of my work has been in the LA area and around the country, Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin…
S: When did you start drawing for Broadway specifically? Did someone commission you to do it or you just started on your own?
Sometimes a friend would get a show in New York and then they would commission a sketch. Around 2006, I just did my kind of blind kamikaze sitting artwork in New York and picked a few shows that were Tony nominated that year. It was during the original tour of Color Purple that I sent a drawing of LaChanze to the stage door and got a lovely note from LaChanze. Any time I see her I remind her of that because it really meant so much to me.
The Drowsy Chaperone was up that year [for a Tony] and I drew the principals and sent it to the stage door. I got a really nice note from Danny Burstein who has become a friend since I moved here. That was kind of the first step, but then I had a friend suggest that I just start putting drawings on Facebook. So every week I put up some sort of a theater‑related sketch. Through that and coming to New York and taking part in the Broadway flea markets, that’s how Paul Wontorek from Broadway.com found me and we started talking about doing a regular feature on the website. Once we started talking about that, I made plans to move to New York. You know, wasn’t getting any younger so I decided, “okay. If I am going to spend some time in New York, I got to go.” So I did and within a couple of months, I was doing the regular feature and lots of other fun projects that have snowballed into other fun projects.
S: What’s your process like? Say you have a show that you are going to see– do you plan out the sketch beforehand?
Well, typically I go online and I see what’s available as far as photo reference and the role. I do take a notes a little bit in the dark in the theater. If I have reference to go back to afterwards, I don’t have to worry so much about details and jewelry and wigs. I can focus more on the intent of the show. If there isn’t much reference online, I have to take a lot of really crazy detailed notes. Regarding color scheme, I try to match what the designers have put out there. That’s something I do keep in mind, not just capturing the storytelling and the actors’ likenesses. We are trying to capture what the designers are thinking and the intent of the show and trying to mirror the story without giving too much of the plot away. If there is some sort of moment I capture, I try to make sure it’s before intermission without giving away too many plot points later in the show. If there is a great costume reveal, I try not to give that away because I want people to be surprised. I am just happy to hold up a mirror to what’s on stage.
Occasionally I have to see a show one night and then turn in my sketch the next day. So usually that means I will go home after seeing it and then get it mostly drawn and this way only have part of it to work on the next day.
Joy: Do you do it with your hands or with a computer?
I first draw a pencil sketch and then do a fresh ink sketch on the lightboard over the pencil and then scan it into the computer and then do the coloring. I will do a couple of different drawings that overlay each other (in case it needs fixing). I do that in Photoshop.
The texture is all based on ink spatter, me and the toothbrush and cutting out little templates. So I have little squares and circles and different shapes that are all actually scanned ink spatter. I use that in different transparencies in Photoshop.
S: When did you first start using Photoshop for your art, or was it always partly digital?
For the longest time I just did black and white pen and ink line work, and I think it was when I was doing the weekly sketches on Facebook, I was like, “okay, we will pop this with some color.” I am not even sure why I decided to do it that way. Maybe it was just experimentation and I was like “oh, I like this because I have this toolbox of custom‑made textures.” If you go back and look, you can see the pattern in it, you can see the certain specks along the edge are consistent with other sketches.
S: Where did the idea for the Lights of Broadway trading cards come from?
I do closing night gifts for fellow cast members and years ago I did a production of Damn Yankees and instead of doing a whole cast sketch, I did individual baseball cards. They were just on flimsy card stock, but that was the first time I had done it. My business partner, Dori Berinstein, she had done the same kind of thing for a documentary she did a number of years back called Gotta Dance– that’s now being developed into a musical called Halftime. Dori has that going on and at the same time I am so thankful she takes the time to fill orders of these cards and lately she has been working almost every night to fill Christmas Hanukkah orders.
S: Did you expect the success that it’s had?
Not really. I mean, I guess that if it’s something you will enjoy, maybe someone else will too, but what we didn’t expect was the community that’s formed around it. Now there are people who have gotten a new group of friends, or they are collecting in Kentucky or Idaho.
S: Did you collect trading cards as a kid?
I collected baseball cards and I had a number of Star Wars cards. Recently – especially when we were researching the cards, I went down to Economy Candy on Rivington. Old mom‑and‑pop store, it’s been there forever. Lots of old retro candy, but they also have an end of an aisle with all these old ’80s, ’90s‑era trading cards, baseball card, movie cards. I picked up cards from Little Shop of Horrors the movie.
J: How do you decide what information to put on the back of the cards?
We have been working a lot with some of our light catchers. We chose a couple of people based on writing samples to do the writing for us and then we edit it and mostly we are successful. Sometimes some errors slip through, but again, we are definitely not in the business of inaccuracies so we feel awful when there is something wrong in the back, but we like to keep the information on the back interesting. Like if people are sitting around with their cards they can quiz each other on it and see what people know.
J: When you reprint cards, is there different information on the back?
We haven’t been doing it. When we do reprint it, it’s been typically our cards from our very first edition which was a very small printing because it was meant to be samples to build up interest in business.
S: How do you decide which ones need to get reprinted? Based on demand?
Sometimes it’s based on demand, but mostly it’s based on when some of those folks that were in the first edition have new products coming in. For instance, Michael Cerveris was still running in Fun Home when we released his card. Next season we will probably release Jerry Herman’s card because of Hello, Dolly! coming in. Possibly Ramin Karimloo’s card because he is coming in with Anastasia. That’s a lot of how we choose the first runs of who is on the cards too.
S: Do you have a favorite card that you have done so far?
You know, I don’t really have a favorite card. They are each kind of a fun challenge. I mean, I always enjoy when I am able to draw someone who is a friend, like Lesli Margherita. We performed on stage together. When I made her card, I was like, “oh, this is exciting, this is really fun,” but we have also been doing some theater specific packs. Last season we did Fun Home and Fiddler. Those were available just at the theater and on the Playbill shop.
S: Were those packs commissioned by the shows?
The Merchant Company commissioned those, but we were able to use a lot of artwork we had already done, except for Fun Home I designed a couple of extra things and for Fiddler a couple of extra things. There were bits of the story. Like in Fiddler, I put in a Fruma Sara card and one with all the three daughters and their suitors. We are working to do the same kind of a thing in the future with shows that are on Broadway now and coming in next spring.
S: Do you have any favorite shows that you had the opportunity to illustrate?
Yes. I was really looking forward to drawing Dear Evan Hansen. I did that for opening night. I have done a number of sketches of Hamilton.
S: Do you have any new projects coming up that you can talk about?
I have a couple of projects that I am not able to talk about yet, but already looking ahead to the next edition of cards.
S: Are there any plans for a coloring book? I really enjoyed the few pages you had on the Lights of Broadway website.
Actually that’s one thing I am working on, a Stephen Sondheim coloring and activity book which I had hoped to get out for the holiday season, but that’s probably not going to happen. Honestly the coloring pages on the website kind of came out. We had major delays on a card edition and just to keep people engaged and keep people looking at the site I put those up there and essentially those were my drawings for Broadway.com that I then took out the color and made sure they were all set. So it’s very possible that I will put some more up. That was kind of a fun, little extra. We did a coloring contest which was fun and might do one of those again.
S: Any more scavenger hunts planned?
Yes. Once the weather starts getting better in the spring, we have hopes to do a live scavenger hunt in the theater district and try to involve local businesses and some of our Broadway celebrity friends to be around, to give clues or that kind of a thing. You know, we can have clues that have been on cards already and –
J: People do read them.
Especially the Broadway kids. First of all, they are really enthusiastic about anything, but especially about the cards and to get a video of them trading, it’s really fun. Because of that, I work with other child wranglers of the theaters, and management over there at various shows to make sure everyone knows what’s going on, but I will get notes from child wranglers saying, “hey, we are learning about John Kander today,” and I am like, “oh, that’s accomplishing exactly what I want it to.”
S: In the Autumn 2016 showcards, you introduced the “Golden Age” series. There have been so many great people on Broadway, how did you make the selection for those cards?
It’s hard. We are like, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” As a main core of the cards, the last two editions have been 120 cards. If we carry on our subsets that we are already doing and really represent all the shows that are coming in, it’s going to be a lot more cards in the next edition. This edition wasn’t such a busy time for openings on Broadway. A number of shows have opened, but they gave us a chance to really establish that Golden Age set of cards with Mary Martin and Ethel Merman – a lot of these are just in addition to being amazing artists of their time to a point of sort of cliche who you think of when you think of old‑school Broadway. So it was kind of easy to choose.
S: Barbara Streisand, I mean, of course.
Yes and I drew her as she looked when she was doing Funny Girl. That was the last thing she did before she left for Hollywood. We want to celebrate various aspects of the art form and make it fun along the way.
J: How long does it take to make one card?
It’s hard to say because I will usually do them in batches. I will do a bunch of pencils and a bunch of inks, and then I will spend a day just coloring and laying them.
J: Do you show your subjects the sketch to approve before you put them on the Lights of Broadway cards?
No. We actually hope and pray that they are going to be fine with their likenesses. I don’t do any of these with the intent of lampooning them or exaggerating their features. It’s all in the spirit of celebration of what they do for the Broadway community and how their faces relate with what they are acting on stage.
S: Do you have tons of photos in front of you that you are using for reference?
Yes. Typically when I look up a person, I will just do a Google search, image search and see what’s kind of the default hairstyle or whatever. It gets a little tricky. I love Danielle Brooks, but her hair is totally different every time she is on the red carpet. I am like, “okay which hair style do I draw?” It’s fun to see how the subjects react to their cards. Through our little spies (essentially the people that work at Theatre Circle stores), we found out that after Jennifer Holiday got her card, she went around in one day between three different stores. She bought 72 packs.
J: Just to find her card?
Well, she had already found her card, but she was trying to find a Danielle card because the next day Danielle was leaving The Color Purple. So then she took this really great picture. Jennifer holding two of her cards and Danielle holding two of her cards. It was really cool. It was so exciting to see them getting enthusiastic over those.
S: Do all the packs of card have the same mix or are they mixed differently? I bought two packs that were exactly identical.
It’s just going to happen because there are only 120 cards and we are printing thousands of each. There are 80 cards that are full run and 40 cards that are not quite as low as half run, but because of the sorting process and it’s all computerized with the packager, they can guarantee that there will be at least one rare card in each pack. But when they are sorting them all together there are a number of identical packs out there and the trick is trying to shuffle them among the different boxes. When Dori and I are filling orders, we will grab from this side of the box and this side of the box and this side of the box and just hoping people get as much variety as possible. But it’s just going to happen that way, especially with the last edition, they weren’t shuffled that well. It was kind of a rush job that the packager did and there were people getting five exact packs in the row. So yes it’s frustrating, but the bright side to that you get cards to trade.
Transcribed by Yaffi / Interview by Serena & Joy
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity