There’s a photo hanging in our hallway of my husband, Daniel, looking deep into the lens from the other side of a dressing room mirror. He’s an almost unrecognizable villain: hair bleached and braided into thick cornrows, black fingernails, and a powder-pale face with wide, menacing black circles ringing his blue eyes. He is prepping for Revenger’s Tragedy and is about to put on Clint Ramos’s costumes. That show, directed by Jesse Berger at Red Bull Theater a decade ago, was my first exposure to Clint Ramos’s designs. The costumes—created for a huge cast on a tiny budget—were dark, sensual, heavy. They felt encumbered (in a great way) by their own style and danger, and evoked a sense of period that was both specific and novel, with modern touchstones layered on top of a Jacobean substructure. Daniel, and the whole cast, had a blast making mayhem in them.
Since then, I’ve watched in admiration as Clint has built a career, as both a costume and set designer, that is fascinatingly layered, rendered, and prolific. His name comes up again and again on exciting projects alongside names of theaters and artists I avidly follow and admire. The range of his aesthetics is dizzying: from the prismatic disco worlds of Here Lies Love and Marie Antoinette to the sparse, hyper-realistic precision of Eclipsed, which is now running at The Public Theater. His work embraces multiplicity; he makes himself at home in places of dynamic opposition. He connects with stories of belonging and estrangement, approaching them with a mix of overwhelming curiosity and a wild sense of play. The designs he arrives at serve the plays in ways that are at once practical and emotionally resonant in a deeply artistic way.
Growing up in Cebu, in the Philippines, Clint saw a school production of Oliver and was, he says, “enraptured,” but it wasn’t until later in secondary school when he got involved in political street theater that he was hooked. “I saw how the theater could actually be a catalyst for change,” he tells me, “and its ideas could be impetuses for movement and ultimately revolution.” He immersed himself in theater in many roles, ultimately choosing to focus on design. He immigrated to the United States, by himself, and later went through a struggle over the course of many years to be able to stay in this country. And while America is home to him, he has a “complicated relationship” to it, a kind of double-layer, outsider point of view that feeds and informs his work.
“All my life, I’ve always felt like an outsider,” he shares, “Even when I was living within a homogenous culture, being gay and growing up overweight made me a minority in my own family and my immediate circles. I actually don’t know who I am if I don’t anchor my self-identity with being an outsider. I am attracted to stories about movement and belonging.”
It may be this attraction that makes Clint singular among designers in his ability to navigate and conjure international stories for the American stage. This year, he is working on two of Danai Gurira’s plays in a short span. The plays take place in very different settings—Eclipsed (which just announced a Broadway transfer from The Public) in a hut in the midst of civil-war Liberia, and Familiar in the living room of an assimilated Zimbabwean family in Minnesota.
“Danai is a beautiful, meticulous writer and artist,” Clint says. “Eclipsed and Familiar are vastly different but share ideas about family, about home—about belonging. Because of these shared ideas, for both projects, I played with this notion of ‘a thing contained in a thing.’ Containment. Belonging. Possessorship.”
“I initially approached Eclipsed by immersing myself in the extant research,” Clint elaborates. “The Liberian civil war happened not too long ago, and it is a war that is well documented. In a way, I let those photographs, documentaries, and firsthand accounts really do the talking in terms of the pragmatics of appearance. But I wanted to go back to that idea of “possessorship”— the notion of being a thing in a space (both emotional and physical), and I knew I needed to find a visual fulcrum, a design center amid the bevy of visual possibilities.” He arrived at a box within a box, where the walls of the black box theater contain a smaller, blown apart concrete section of a box that is the hut and home of the women in the play. They are constrained there in horrifying circumstances. They are, as their hut is, Clint explains, “the very thing that is being held or being contained. I think it was in physicalizing the bullet-holed hut that the girls live in that gave me that center—it physically manifested that sense of home for them. And then, I wanted that center to move.” The concrete structure of the hut indeed moves, changing the terms of its own containment. “I got excited about how this ‘home’ is movable, and how, in its kinesis, it becomes tenuous.”
Clint is working next on Danai’s play Familiar, a comedy about an immigrant family, at Playwrights Horizons, and he is still in early stages of the process. “On Familiar, we are looking at how an immigrant culture is also contained in this country.” The idea of containment may manifest very differently in that design, he thinks, and surmises that the space may be “recognizable to us as a ‘traditional’ set, which we ultimately inhabit with characters that usually do not find themselves in these spaces in the American theater. So, I am excited about this design idea because on a physical level it punctuates how Danai has actually appropriated the American family comedic form.” He continues, “What excites me most about being a set designer is finding a way to present not only the pragmatic space but to also physicalize a phenomenon. Theatrically. Without it being design-y.”
But how does he get there? Theater design is a magical, alchemical process—but one that must be rooted in some unmovable and concrete foundations: text, story, casting, and budget, for starters. The design process is a dance of give and take between the visions and priorities of the writer, director, and producers (and often the actors, in the case of costumes). When asked if he has a favorite way to begin a process, Clint responds, “I know that it always involves fear, and doubt, and getting utterly overwhelmed and confused. I end up with tons of things, tons of notions, tons of ideas, before I can actually hone in on something worth exploring. I guess that would be my favorite way in—getting lost.”
Director Leigh Silverman, who has worked with Clint multiple times, relishes the fact that he “designs with a keen eye towards storytelling. He always puts story first, and we are always saying to each other, ‘Yeah, but what does that tell us?’ Nothing is random and no choice not deeply, thoroughly investigated.”
She sees the process he describes as “getting lost” a little differently: “He is wildly inventive. He brings tons of research and ideas and then he says, ‘You know it won’t look like this—this is just for inspiration,’ and then he actually designs something even better. He has designed a sandwich tuxedo for me with a tomato cummerbund and lettuce ruffles and the brown lightly ‘toasted’ suit with actual glitter ‘seeds.’ His work on Wild Party had such a contemporary feel, so freaking sexy, but every choice was inspired by the ’20s in a deeply accurate, downright dramaturgical way. He is rigorous and exacting and he strives for perfection.”
There is a sense in watching Clint work that he is engaged in some very serious play. The word amateur comes from the Latin for “love,” and while Clint is without a doubt one of the most rigorous, exacting professionals around, he seems very much in love, still enraptured in the way he was as a child seeing his first production. He makes a sandwich tuxedo; he plays with layers of period, form, and function; he piles up research like so many blocks and toys. He knows it all deeply so that he can play masterfully.
But still I wonder: How exactly does he get there? How can the realities of shape, light, proportion, and color be combined into the ephemera of story, revelation, of minds opening and souls transported? Of revolution? I ask him about color, because in poring over production photos I can’t help but feel the colors in relation to one another and to story. I feel there must be a method to it, if not a formula. Patricia Clarkson’s dresses in The Elephant Man flaunt their fineness through bold color and shine; they seem to challenge the stark simplicity of Bradley Cooper’s contorted body, wearing only muted undergarments. Clint rebuffs me a little, beautifully, saying, “Color is color is color. It is everything and it is nothing. Colors are tools. All colors go together. All colors appear in nature. I just can’t stand all these rules that people have created about color and what goes with what, etc.” He pushes his ideas a step further: “Life happens and colors happen [...] and if we are to create art that embraces the human condition, then surely color is a large part in that creation. It’s almost always visceral with me and color. The question is never: how does that look? but always how does that make you feel?”
I’m struck by Clint’s knowledge of many overlapping worlds—his ability to fully realize stories of movement and belonging between worlds; his intellectual clarity paired with his reverence for the unknown and magical. He is watching, taking it all in, feeling it all, and has been as long as he can remember—circling the perimeters between cultures, countries, even internal factions of the theater world. “Being an outsider makes you notice everything that insiders take for granted,” he explains to me. “I feel like I have a unique understanding of America that is greatly informed by that fact that it belongs to a larger world. But, to me everything is foreign, everything. So I make a point to really pay attention, because I am terrified that I may miss something.”
Clint has turned what might be a limitation—his outside point of view and divergent cultural reference—into an extraordinary asset through force of will. I wonder what excites him most, what kind of work rises to the top in his ongoing aesthetic and cultural excavation. I ask what he likes best in the design work that’s happening right now in theater and beyond. “Everything,” he replies, “I love everything that is happening now. It is the diversity that turns me on. It seems to me that the zeitgeist is pointing towards appreciation of a wide range of aesthetics. I think we are finally living in an age where there is truly enough space for both the decorative and the essential. I think the age of social media may have given us a larger capacity to appreciate diversity and extremes, and to be bored by singular movements. It seems to me people are saying, ‘Just as long as it is good art or design—we can have many kinds.’”
Eclipsed runs through November 29 at the Public Theater. For tickets and further information, call 212-967-7555 or visit publictheater.org. A Broadway transfer is slated for February 2016. Familiar will run February-March 2016 at Playwrights Horizons: playwrightshorizons.org. For upcoming projects by Clint Ramos, and more pictures of his designs, visit clintramos.com.
ContributorAddie Johnson Talbott
Addie Johnson Talbott is an actor and producer. She is an artistic associate of Rising Phoenix Rep, with whom she has produced numerous plays Off-Broadway and in the Indie Theatre, most recently the Lucille Lortel award-winning All the Rage by Martin Moran, as well as the ongoing Cino Nights series.