BWW Interview: Tony Nominee Clint Ramos Talks Designing Sets & Costumes for ECLIPSED
Clint Ramos recently received a 2016 Tony Award nomination for Best Costume Design of a Play for Eclipsed. He also served as scenic designer for the production. Among Ramos' many theater credits are THE ELEPHANT MAN, VIOLET, HERE LIES LOVE and DRY POWDER.
What initially drew you design?
I was raised by a very stylish and exacting mother who cared about aesthetics and design immensely. But, when I started doing theater I wanted to be a director at first and soon realized that what I was really interested in was the idea of creating the physical worlds of the play and the characters that inhabit them. I was obsessed with the idea that I can actually tell a story by creating and arranging objects in space and how they relate to other objects and the humans that encounter them. That kind of spacial, sociological thinking really consumed me and I was hooked.
Who are the designers who have influenced your career and design style?
Overall I work very hard to be as malleable as possible so I expose myself to all designers. I especially love designers who are independent voices, they don't necessarily need to be revolutionaries but they need to be singular. I love the Belgian school of fashion like Ann Demeulemeester or Raf Simmons for their essentialism. I also love the Dutch-Chinese designer Fong Leng for her intricate sense of humor and wit. I get a lot of inspirations from artists like Petah Coyne and Darren Waterston, and photographers like Jurgen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans. For theater designers, Eiko Ishioka is up there for me as well as Robert Israel.
You designed both the sets and costumes for Eclipsed. Do you believe these two very important production elements are interrelated?
As a set and costume designer, one of my biggest tasks is not only to create a physical world in which these words, circumstances and characters can be contained, but to actually offer a very distilled emotional response to the play that can be felt by the audience when they see the design. This response has to be consistent in both the set and the costumes so it is very interrelated. But, the relationship is layered, it is the container and the contained. Although the methods in designing either one are very different - both disciplines follow the same mandate - it must tell a story.
Did you collaborate with playwright Danai Gurira as far as what her vision was for these characters?
Yes, very much so and also, with Liesl Tommy, our director. Danai wrote with so much emotional and physical specificity and yet left room for me to interpret them through my own process. She was also very clear on who these women are because she based all of them on real Liberian women during that war. Liesl and I worked really hard on how to capture the essence of each character as it related to which actor was playing which part - it's a very detailed and satisfying process. Danai is a newer collaborator while Liesl is like a sister to me. I designed the set for Danai's other play this season Familiar and Liesl and I have worked together on maybe 15 shows.
ECLIPSED features non-period costumes with less-glamorous, more gritty designs. Can you talk about how designing these types of costumes entails as much research and planning as more traditional costumes?
When I begin the process of designing costumes and/or sets, I don't really qualify them by period or style. Each play has its own requirements and limitations and they are all unique and require the same process and time.I wanted the clothes to look believable and yet theatrical at the same time, even when I do period shows - I make sure, in spite of how elaborate the costume is, that it is viable as a piece of clothing. I think there is an idea that costume design is only about the pretty, period stuff - that's great... no one loves a complicated 18th century gown more than me - but really, costume design is about sociology. It is about digging into the psyche of the character and like an archeological dig, figure out what that character chose to wear, or made to wear, that day and why... and at times we want this choice to be obvious and at times we want this to be opaque. Costuming is a complex matrix of creating a society through clothing.
Can you explain the research that went into the costume design for the play and where your inspiration came from?
The Liberian war was a heavily photographed war (also it lasted a long time) so there are thousands of extant research available online. Danai had started the research by her trip to Liberia when she was writing the play and we continued it by pouring over all of the available photographs. The inspiration was right there. It was the Liberian people themselves. I wanted to honor them by being as honest in depicting them as I possibly could. We looked for archetypes, photos of girls that were around the same age, photos of girls who elicited a lot of emotion from us, etc. I compiled all of these and filed them away in my brain until we had casting and I could begin to sketch.
How does the clothing worn by these characters, such as vintage T-shirts, help convey the story and give audiences a better understanding of their difficult lives?
One of the biggest challenges was how to make the story and the world of war-torn Liberia accessible to the modern day American audience. As a designer, I took it upon myself to find a way to create that bridge. I went back to the research and realized that the answer was right there. Through missionary groups, humanitarian efforts, factory overages of "American" goods--Liberia had become a depository of America's discards. It was not uncommon to see a Liberian woman dressed in a traditional African print wrap skirt and a give-away T-shirt from an American doctor's office or Hardware store and be completely oblivious to the irony of the whole outfit. This led me down the paths of collecting vintage T-shirts and mixing them in as much as possible. It also gave me the opportunity to directly comment on the action or create character complexity through the graphic print of the shirt and who's wearing it. For instance, Maima wears a knock-off Midriff Chanel top that flaunts her body as she's talking about how she has freed herself of being a sexual object for the rebel soldiers. Or, when we first see Lupita Nyong'o's character, she is 14, she is in a vintage rugrats t-shirt that is heavily distressed because she's been hiding in the jungle for weeks. The shirt does a lot of storytelling and more-- it conveys the idea of an innocence lost, it also gives you a recent history for the character like she may have at one point on her life worn this shirt when she was at a happier place like hanging out with friends. And lastly, it is recognizable to an American audience as an object of childhood. In it's ravaged state it is heartbreaking.
What does it mean to you to receive a Tony nomination for this production?
It means the world and I don't take it for granted. It means that somehow the sacrifices I've made in devoting my life to the theater were worth it. It also means that there is a space for someone like me and that design that deals with the more contemporary, uglier, grittier, oh-so-human stuff is worth rewarding and that it is just as valid as the period, pretty ones. It also means my husband and I get to put on tuxes and take my mom on a fun night out!
What exciting projects are ahead for you?
I'm working with the incomparable Marisa Tomei on the The Rose Tattoo at Williamstown, designing all three shows for Encores!, Off-Center. Then, it's Sweet Charity with Sutton Foster. I'm also designing two new musicals Bella for Playwrights Horizons/Dallas Theater Center and David Byrne's new musical St. Joan at The Public.
Recent/current credits include Here Lies Love (NY and London), Little Shop of Horrors (Encores! Off-Center), Barbecue (Public), Appropriate (Signature), Dry Powder (Public). More than 100 NY, regional and international credits. Principal designer for Encores! Off-Center under Jeanine Tesori's leadership. Awards: Obie Award for Sustained Excellence, three Lucille Lortel Awards, TDF Irene Sharaff Young Master Award, two American Theatre Wing Henry Hewes Awards, Helen Hayes Award.
Photo credit: Walter McBride
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
ECLIPSED renderings courtesy of Clint Ramos