The Activist Artist

by Lisa Mulcahy
Designer Clint Ramos won the 2016 Tony award for best costume design
Designer Clint Ramos won the 2016 Tony award for best costume design

Tony-winning designer Clint Ramos melds his peerless creativity with a determined social conscience

Clint Ramos is known for his meticulous attention to the detail that defines the world of each play he designs costumes or sets for. Ramos works with the actors he costumes on such nuances, with a view toward helping them build their characters to perfection, and capturing the world their characters inhabit. In addition, he infuses his work with a commitment to his strong political beliefs, both by exploring the circumstances of the material he’s working on, and seeking out opportunities to change minds and promote cultural equality within his projects. His philosophy and talent has made an incredible impression.

Ramos won the 2016 Tony award for best costume design in a play for Eclipsed; he’s also won Drama Desk awards for both costumes and sets, an Obie for sustained excellence in design, three Lucille Lortel awards, and the Ani Ng Dangal presidential medal of dramatic arts from the president of the Philippines, where he was born. His memorable stage credits also include The Elephant Man, both on Broadway and in the West End, in addition to Violet, Here Lies Love, Barbecue and Angels In America; as principal costume designer for City Center’s Encores!, he’s designed shows including The Wild Party, Little Shop Of Horrors and the current Broadway transfer Sunday In The Park With George. Ramos has not only worked for esteemed theatres like the Long Wharf, the American Repertory Theater, and Steppenwolf Theatre Company, he’s designed for theatres in Dublin, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and Bucharest; he’s also been a visiting artist and professor at Georgetown University, New York University, and Fordham University. Throughout his career Ramos stays true to his activist heart, while making breathtaking art. 

Eclipsed

 Sowing the Seeds of Sensibility

Ramos hails specifically from Cebu in the Philippines. “I come from a family of lawyers and artists—my mother was always a strong supporter of the arts,” he says. Ramos attended high school in Manila, where he met a drama teacher who proved to be very influential.”This was during a tumultuous time in the country, not unlike the political time we are currently in here in the United States,” he recalls. “My drama teacher was an activist who was involved in street theatre—allegorical political pieces. When I was a freshman, he invited me to watch one of these performances, and this made a big impression on me. I came to believe that theatre can be a catalyst for change—it could move people. I was hooked!”

From this early experience, Ramos also appreciated the powerful, yet fleeting impact a good piece of work can make. “Theatre, to me, is a temple—a collective medium, which is bigger than all of those who are individually involved, bigger than all of its elements combined,” he explains. From the start, he saw theatre as an elusive yet incredibly impactful form of expression. “The lifespan of a theatrical project is so short—and after the curtain closes, everything is committed to memory. It’s a really beautiful, mysterious process that I respect so much. Nothing is tangible like a painting—yet the work we can do can leave an important, lasting impression.”

Ramos came to the U.S. in his early 20s, to attend New York University. “When I got to New York, the cultural capital of the world, one of the things I really loved is how I could be exposed to many types of performances across the city—such a wide range of work,” he enthuses. He earned a master of fine arts, and started working all over the city on productions; from the beginning, his creative point of view was inspired by big, vital ideas. “I saw a production of Oresteia at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—it was a long production, a day-long affair, and it was so political. I loved it so much it definitely solidified what I really believed in. I wanted to pursue theatre that I thought was important, to be involved in things that matter.”

Mastering His Message

As Ramos built a fine reputation with his design work, he received bigger and better commercial offers while his portfolio grew. He made a decision that in taking on even the most mainstream work, he would try to make a difference by including a social statement however he could. He eventually received an offer that allowed him to make a particularly significant difference. “I was approached by Disney to design a true extravaganza—a stage adaptation of the movie Frozen at Disneyland,” Ramos says. “If you take that offer at face value, it wouldn’t appear that Frozen would make a political statement. Yet I thought I could do something that would make a difference with this idea. We found a way into it—I worked with the director of Eclipsed, and we decided that through multi-cultural casting, children would be able to see the first black Elsa. This can change their worldviews from the time they’re so very young. Now, thousands of children attending six performances of the show a day have experienced Frozen in this context, and it’s so satisfying to me to know that they will see actors of different races and cultures playing so many different roles from such a young age. Every job, to me, can offer the chance to make a positive change in the way we see the world.”

Eclipsed

Ramos is passionately interested in researching each piece he takes on, intensely studying the setting and society each piece of material delves into. “Research, to me, starts on an emotional level,” he explains. “I’ll take a script, sift through it, maybe read it through with my husband, and in listening to the words on the page, I form an emotional opinion about what the material means, and what I want to do with it. I let my ideas simmer a bit. So, my approach is both pragmatic and abstract.” Images also play a big role in his preparation. For Eclipsed, Ramos realistically distressed the simple street clothes worn by Lupita Nyong’o, to reflect her character’s experience as a survivor of war.” Eclipsed dealt with a protracted war in Liberia from the late ‘90s to the early 2000s, so I was able to study many real-life photographs,” he explains. “I studied every nuance, and even though the play takes place in Liberia, I thought, I know this world. I also grew up in a Third World country. I understood poverty, the effect of colonized people, whitewashing. So in planning my design, I looked for the girls in the play, looked for the hut, and found a couple of photographs that really illustrated my ideas. I worked with the show’s director, Liesl Tommy, and its playwright, Danai Gurira, to create a kind of dossier of what would work. It was a process of illumination then, through sketches and collaboration—we just worked through until we felt what we had was right.”

For The Elephant Man, Ramos infused the period dress clothes worn by Bradley Cooper with simplicity, elegance and dignity, reflective of Cooper’s character arc. He made the decision not to see David Lynch’s well-known film adaptation of the material. “Our director, Scott Ellis, wanted to do a very modernist take on the material, very minimal, so that was very helpful to focus on,” Ramos says. “I chose to closely observe the beautiful physical work Bradley did onstage—conveying the character’s appearance through body movements. I did research on the Victorian era, but stuck with that minimal, modernist guideline as well, so Patricia Clarkson’s dress was less adorned, and Bradley and Alessandro Nivola wore very simple suits. I focused on the idea of light and dark—how there was a medieval, dark underbelly to Victorian society. I used deep jewel tones—the color of beetles inspired me in particular. It was an example of the fact that designing is really about storytelling, with a point of view.”

 In Transit

Advocating for the Future

Ramos has been associated with some of New York City’s most important advocacy groups, including Fierce NY! and Slam NYC. “I feel that for me, at heart, I need to do service,” he says. “As artists, we are blessed. I feel so fortunate to be able to do this work that I love, but I have so much doubt at times, too—why I am so fortunate while others are not? I feel in today’s political climate, service matters.”

To this end, he’s thrown himself into working with the GhostLight Project, through which members pledge to protect inclusion in today’s new and uncertain political climate for all, through participation and compassion. “Theatre can be a tool and a sanctuary,” Ramos summarizes. “In this trying time politically—when the most marginalized are under siege—it’s very important that we, as artists but also as citizens, keep creating and speaking out. I will. I’m going to continue working on things that matter.”