Clint Ramos is Crafting a Story with His Costume Designs

Clint Ramos at the 70th Annual Tony Awards
Costume designer Clint Ramos attends the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Tony-winner Clint Ramos understands the importance of design in a Broadway show. He knows that the visuals inform a story just as much as the dialogue. His work is particularly informative in the current revival of Once On This Island, which uses “trash” materials to reflect modern day Hurricane-ravaged cultures. We spoke to Clint about his design process and where his love of theater began.

What sparked your interest in costume and scenic design?

I was involved in the theater since I was young. I started in political theater in the Philippines where I grew up. I originally wanted to be a director, but I didn’t think I had that thing in me where I could actually convince actors of a vision. I just didn’t think I was socially communicative that way. But I was very interested in creating the world and figuring out what the inhabitants of that world looked like, and that sort of led me to scenic and costume design. You know, over the years I feel like I actually made the right choice. I have so much agency in controlling what the audience sees and ultimately what the audience takes away from the show.

Can you remember the first show you saw in which the costumes or set left a memorable impression?

The first show I saw was a tour company of Oliver! The Musical and I was hooked. I think I was like nine or ten. It had passed through the city where I lived and I was so enamored by it. I never experienced anything like it. I didn’t know something like that existed. I was just enthralled.

When approaching a new project, what is the collaboration process like and what is your process?

It’s really exciting, you get to be in a room with really smart people and you really are creating a world, conjuring up a world. You all read the play, you all heard the musical, and you all sort of have this one vision to make this awesome thing come alive. What’s exciting about that thing is how you and the other collaborators can harness each of your own interpretations or visions and make them into one breathing thing, one solid vision, because you come at it from different points of view and from different angles. Ultimately there is one message that you want to send and it’s magical and it’s terrific when that happens, when all of these minds can get together to create one thing that’s bigger than all of us.

Once On This Island incorporates a lot of “found objects” into its design. What was your inspiration for this design choice?

The inspiration was looking at those photographs of Haiti and the Caribbean after the hurricane. After a hurricane with so much objects and garbage that was strewn around by the storm, and that inspired us to create this world out of those found objects.

Costume sketches and inspiration for Papa Ge in Once On This Island
Costume sketches and inspiration for Papa Ge in Once On This Island

What kind of story are you trying to tell with your costumes in Once On This Island?

Usually when there are productions of Once On This Island it’s done in a very folkloric type of way. We wanted to be very honest and acknowledge where we are as a global community and what really happens to these islands after a hurricane and maybe out of that desperation, out of that kind of sadness and destruction, there is a need to tell a story of hope and a story of love. That’s where we came at it from. Let’s just be honest. Let’s not make it into this type of myth. These are people who survived a hurricane. They are telling each other a story to make themselves get up and rebuild. That’s basically where we were coming from and that inspired us to do the stuff where we create costumes out of found objects, create how the gods looked like out of garbage.

Costume sketches and inspiration for Asaka in Once On This Island
Costume sketches and inspiration for Asaka in Once On This Island

Do you have any favorite costume pieces or sets that you’ve designed? If so, why are those your favorite?

It’s usually the most recent one. Those are my favorites. I would say the god costumes for Once On This Island are pretty special because I felt truly inspired and I am dug deep, not only in terms of what can I do with these materials, but who these gods were and how they transformed from an ordinary storyteller to divine being. I actually really loved the way my Step For Mankind (which just closed last month at the Horizon) turned out. I was very complicated and very mathematical and I loved having to stretch that particular muscle.

One of the memorable costume pieces for In Transit was the MetroCard dress. What was your inspiration for that dress and how did you bring the design to life?

The MetroCard dress was in the script. In the script it says she is wearing a dress completely made out of MetroCards and I think they were inspired by the American Express dress that was worn by the costume designer of Priscilla to the Oscars over a decade ago. The process of that was trying to find as many MetroCards in the sort of color range that we wanted. We used about 700 MetroCards for each dress and we found a lot of it through eBay or Craigslist. People actually collected them. I think it was just about trying to figure out a design that was flattering, that moved like fabric, but still not hide the fact that they were MetroCards.

MetroCard dress from In Transit
MetroCard dress from In Transit

Have you ever started working on a show with one idea in mind and completely changed the look as it developed?

All the time. It happens all the time. Designing for the theater is like designing for a living, breathing thing. It has to change. Things change during a rehearsal. Actors get more and more detailed in their interpretation and so, as designers we just need to be limber enough to actually go with the flow and adjust accordingly.

How does it feel to be a Tony winner for your designs in Eclipsed, especially as the first man of color to win that award?

Wow, I didn’t really realize that I was the first person of color to win that award until somebody told me. I mean, it feels profound. I feel very honored and blessed, and also I feel acknowledged I suppose, ’cause we are a minority and I feel a huge responsibility going forward. Ultimately I felt very honored and felt like the work that I have devoted my life to actually means something. It also gives me an opportunity to be more visible to young designers of color and see that there is life in the theater, or at least designing for the theater is possible for them.

For those who would like to get started in costume and/or scenic design professionally, what advice would you give them?

Well, the thing I would say is keep on keeping on. It’s really not about glamour or all of that stuff. The biggest advice I would just say is sharpen your storytelling skills, and by that I mean we are all storytellers in the theater. I think the designers are storytellers. We tell stories through a visual medium. Fall in love with that and everything else will fall into place.

Do you ever feel creatively blocked, and if so, how do you deal with it?

I have a lot of little tricks. What I do is I clean. I clean my desk, I clean my computer, my desktop on my computer. It sort of makes me declutter my mind and start from a blank slate. That usually works. Or I exercise.

Is there any Broadway show you would love to revive and put your own twist on?

I would actually love to do the King and I at some point in my career. I think it would be great to see somebody from Southeast Asia actually design the costumes for that. I feel like I have been there many times and it would be great to just be able to access that part of my of my heritage. Being Southeast Asian, I feel I have a connection to that, to those people. I just love the musical. It’s so lush.

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