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Making a House into a Home

Michael S. Eddy • April 2020Design • March 24, 2020

Clint Ramos is a scenic and costume designer based in New York City. He was recently named a 2020 Fellow by the United States Artists organization. He’s the recipient of the Tony Award for Best Costume Design of a Play for his work on Eclipsed (the first person of color to win in his category) and has also been twice nominated for his costume designs for Once On This Island and Torch Song. He also has two Obie Awards, one for Sustained Excellence in Design; three Lucille Lortel Awards; two American Theatre Wing Hewes Awards; and the TDF Irene Sharaff Young Master Award among others. He has designed sets and/or costumes for over a hundred theater, opera and dance productions and has an MFA from NYU. Ramos is Head of Design and Production at Fordham University and has taught at SUNY Purchase NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Georgetown University. He is also a member of the American Theatre Wing’s Advisory Committee.

Recently, he designed the set for Grand Horizons on Broadway and A Raisin in the Sun at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Stage Directions spoke with Ramos about his work on these two very different sets. Though both are family homes, one evokes a cold almost generic feeling of nothing more than a house and the other, truly dilapidated and in fact dangerous, is unmistakably a home that reflects the history of the family. Both sets reflect the state of the people’s lives who reside there.

Grand Horizons on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

 

In Bess Wohl’s new play Grand Horizons, Bill and Nancy have spent 50 years as husband and wife. They can anticipate each other’s routines. But just as they settle into their new house in the Grand Horizons senior community they decide to divorce. They are merely residing in the house.

A Raisin in the Sun at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (Photo: Joseph O’Malley)

 

 

In Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, Lena Younger wants to use her late husband’s life insurance to move her family out of their cramped apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Hansberry’s play examines the idea of hope in the face of racial and economic strife. 

In seeing both Grand Horizons and A Raisin in the Sun, what struck me was, both are household sets, but they are very different homes. You have a deft hand at designing household sets with nuance. Talk about the difference between creating a house and home. Juxtapose these two sets.
I think with both of those projects—and they’re very divergent—I took different paths to them. But I think what’s common with them is that we really made the house itself, the structure itself, a character. To me, it’s always fascinating… I work with Robert O’Hara a lot. We’ve excavated Raisin so many times just by discussions; we’ve looked at that text, we looked at the legacy, even Hansberry’s notes. I think what always struck us whenever we saw productions of Raisin is that the current apartment that they’re living in is really always rendered as a quaint sort of old, sort of grandma’s house. 

But there never was the sense that it is a matter of life and death; that they need to get out of there. So, I really went back into the research and if you really look at the housing crisis in Chicago, which was a prophetic vision of what happens really in America in terms of public housing, the living conditions were dire. You had families, sometimes two families living in what they call the kitchenette that was subdivided. Electricity was patched through and there’s a shared bathroom down the hall. These people literally were made to live like rats. With Grand Horizons, that house, although it’s a very different house is also the source of oppression for them. It is what I think physicalizes the calcification of this relationship. So, it is devoid of any feeling. It is in a way this white coffin for them. 

With both projects, and both directors, Leigh [Silverman] and Robert [O’Hara], really said, ‘Let’s look at these homes, these houses, as characters and see how that informs us.’

Talk about how you found the right look for the senior living home of Grand Horizons.
We did a lot of research in terms of trying to find this specific home that we wanted. “Bess was really specific about it being in the Northeast, around the Philadelphia area. We did a lot of online tours of those places. We found a lot of really wonderfully correct places. But I think the set needed to be a lot of things, so we did some minor modifications but a lot of the footprint of that house is really based on research and on real homes.

How do you approach a household set, balancing the functional layout needs and the narrative support of the story?
At the beginning, it’s always about the ground plan. I’ve worked very closely with the director because it always goes through many revisions because it needs to function—as a house or as a home—but it also really needs to be able to do all the theatrical things that we need to do. Sight lines need to be perfect. We need to see every character, even when they’re washing dishes, we need to see them. A lot of that really has to factor in. I start with a ground plan and with the research and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we need…’.

For instance, with Grand Horizons, we looked at the ground plans of these homes and then I printed that out, put the ground plan at the Helen Hayes [Theatre] to scale and played with it; turning it around almost, opening it up. ‘How much do we slice it?’ I always feel that it’s more interesting, to me, to render these homes the way they are; almost taking the box itself and with a cake cutter and slice a wall open. So, you feel like you’ve actually just tore a part of that house and plopped it into the theater and the audience now sees what’s inside. I think highly theatricalized renderings of houses always turn me off because they’re falsely opened up. I always begin and try to be true to—especially with naturalistic sets—what the ground plan is in real life. Then we put it in 3D form, and then the director and I literally go through scene by scene and see how it could work.

Talk a little bit about the importance of having a good relationship, and good communications, with your props team.
It’s crucial. Because in theater, the props artisans are basically who dress the set. So, having a close, almost this love affair with them is crucial. And I’ve been lucky because with both projects I had great props artists. Before anything else, we’d talk about the play and I make sure that they do read the text and give it another read after that. I insist that they attend the first rehearsal to literally listen to the play and be in close contact with the director. I feel there should be a direct conduit to the props team, especially with new plays. Because as they were rehearsing both on Broadway, and at Williamstown, for Grand Horizons, Bess was rewriting. It was crucial that we kept up with that and that’s down to the tiniest minutia—’what toaster we should use, what Jane Alexander would prefer to drink’. Just the set dressing of everything; really being able to canvas the actors as characters and ask, ‘what would she decorate this home with?’ I think for Grand Horizons we thought, Oh, maybe she tried to be a little bit French provincial, but really gave up at a certain point.

A Raisin in the Sun at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (Photo: Joseph O’Malley)

Then for Raisin, I remember Epatha [S. Epatha Merkerson who plays Lena] looking at the set and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize you were going to do this. It’s so run down.’ Then we showed her all the research and eventually she realized what Robert and I were trying to do. One of my favorite moments with Raisin, is she said, ‘You know what I would do if I was Lena? I would stuff newspapers in these holes.’ It was such a beautiful moment when an actor literally just took it upon themselves to own the house itself. She literally rolled up newspapers and stuffed them in the hole so people couldn’t peek in, rats couldn’t come in. It was brilliant.

They have to move; it is a matter of life and death. There is a scene that’s always omitted when productions happen, where the little boy kills a rat and we didn’t. I think that’s an important little bit that Hansberry put in there because it’s basically them. They are dying in that house. They need to go.

How do you work as a designer with the shop themselves in terms of finishes?
We spec everything and I do a 3D model of everything. We do paint elevations as much as we can. And we make sure that we are clear about what we’re conveying to the shop down to calling out exactly what paint to use and what finish. The shop, Global Scenic Services, who built our Grand Horizons, I’ve worked with them many times. They also built Slave Play for me. We’ve had this kind of relationship and they actually are now at my pace in terms of designing. 

It’s really just making sure that the communications are open. With both plays I was able to sort of oversee them more closely because I was there. Global were really fantastic about sending me periodic emails because we needed to do the trick with the van crashing through the set for Grand Horizons. They would video the tests for how a van could ram into that wall and then they would send it to me. So, it really is a close collaboration.

With scenic shops, I tend to speak very metaphorically, and I highly value these relationships because they get it when I try to speak in those terms. For instance, when the U-Haul crashes, I spent more time telling them what I wanted to feel after seeing it, rather than when or how it should be. Because they’re smart men and women, they figured out the best timing, how much armature we needed behind that wall. What and how the drywall needed to be pre-scored, and what the system should be. It’s really a designer’s dream to work with shops like these.

Let’s talk about the van that crashes through the wall in Grand Horizons. What did you think when you first read that in the stage directions?
That was the very first thing that we all talked about and it was a nonnegotiable. It is the play, and I think it is a very important thing. It’s not there just for the effect’s sake. It’s really about piercing that box; about piercing that bubble. This, quote unquote, marriage is now pierced. There is an energy that is trying to split it open for better, or for worse. It was a necessary physical movement.

I think once everybody was on board with, ‘okay, so we’re going to do this’, it was really about prioritizing that moment. Everything, in a way, had to be designed around that and had to be reversed engineered around that, down to what the materials are in the kitchen floor, plumbing of the sink in the kitchen island. All of it had to be considered with that movement in mind. Also, I think part of what we really wanted to do, because that was the priority, was to tackle that first and make sure that we spent enough time doing that effect. I’ve never done anything like it and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. It was so much fun. It’s always funny because the absurdity always lands five seconds after the event. You know what I mean? The audience just starts giggling after that initial breath and then you could count five beats until everyone starts chuckling.

What were some of the challenges with the van crash and how did you solve them?
I think the challenge was really the wall and what the expense of that was. Because we do go through a wall every performance. And because the Helen Hayes is the smallest theatre on Broadway, we really couldn’t store many walls. So, on a weekly basis, we have walls that are being replenished from Global. 

That truck doesn’t have a lot of room backstage to travel to the wall and to crash in. The replacement wall of two pieces of sheetrock gets replenished every night; and it gets spackled every night and painted. They have it to a science now; they do it after the curtain comes down. 

Learn more on how the U-Haul van is crashed through the kitchen wall, every night in: And then we drive a truck through it..

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