From Imelda Marcos to Lupita Nyong'o: Clint Ramos's journey to Broadway

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Clint Ramos, fresh off his win for best costume design at the 2016 Tony Awards, recalls how he went from growing up as a drama kid in Cebu to being one of the most in-demand theater designers in New York. Photo by REGINA RAMOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Eclipsed,” a play that opened off-Broadway in 2015 and debuted on Broadway in 2016, is unique for a number of reasons. Taking place in 2003 amid the end of the Second Liberian Civil War, it’s a story of survival that centers on five Liberian women. It made history as the first Broadway play with an all-black and female creative team and cast, which includes the Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o.

It is also the production for which Clint Ramos, a multi-awarded Filipino theater designer now based in New York, won his first Tony Award just days ago, for best costume design.

Ramos’s costumes for the play may not be as complicated or delicate as some of the more elaborate productions on the Great White Way, but one would be mistaken to think that they are simple. With traditional African material and patterns contrasted with pop-culture and brand-name items, Ramos has meticulously and successfully captured the subtle politics and social implications of the country in such a turbulent time.

clint ramos - costume Some aspects of the costumes include images of American pop culture and bloodstains. Photo by JOAN MARCUS  

His track record spans over a hundred productions that go beyond New York and the U.S., including “The Elephant Man” on Broadway with Bradley Cooper; an off-Broadway production of “Here Lies Love,” a rock/disco musical about Imelda Marcos; and, locally, “The Duchess of Malfi/Ang Dukesa ng Malfi” by Dulaang UP, the University of the Philippines’s theater organization, of which he was a member.

In an email exchange with CNN Philippines Life, Ramos discussed his process, finding his path through political street theater, differences and similarities between theater in the Philippines and in New York, and his approach to “Eclipsed.” Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

I’ve read that political street theater in the Philippines helped spark your interest in design. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Do you remember the exact moment where you first set out to make design a true life path?

I entered high school at Philippine Science during the waning years of the Marcos regime. I joined the drama club called Kamalayan and through the people there, I was introduced to the Philippine Educational Theater Association. They did these allegorical pieces against the regime that incited action. It was riveting. I was this young chubby kid from Cebu, clueless, and I idolized these really cool theater activists. One of them was Chris Millado, who is now the artistic director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

I saw firsthand how theater and art could be a tool for change and how it could actually be a living thing and not just be something we passively view. I fell in love with that. I pursued Theater Arts in college at UP Diliman. I wanted to be a director, majored in it with a minor in design. It was there where I became more and more aware of aesthetics and the physical worlds in which these great world dramas were set and also how the characters who inhabited them looked.

I don’t know the exact moment I set out to pursue design, but I guess it happened organically and grew out of that awareness of the physicality of the theater. When I moved to New York was when I really was just swimming in the most diverse art and culture and I think the decision to pursue my Masters in design crystallized here.

clint ramos - sketches Sketches of the costumes for "Eclipsed." Photo courtesy of CLINT RAMOS  

As a Filipino immigrant in America, when you uprooted and began working in another country, were there some aspects of theater and theater design that you had to adjust to?

Yes. I think aesthetics vary and every place and people have different affinities. But New York, where I live and work, is the cultural center of the Western world, and I was exposed to every kind of method and process. I took what I thought was important and left everything else in my brain’s filing cabinet. In many ways, theater practice in America is different from that in the Philippines in terms of it being more professionalized and unionized, and in many ways, it is also similar in terms of how it lacks funding and most of the nonprofit theaters are where the really exciting, fresh, experimental work happens. Only on Broadway do we really get to practice commercial theater where the level of support is more ample, but you also work on more “commercial” pieces that are not necessarily driven by art but more by commerce. We are very lucky with “Eclipsed” that we found producers who were willing to take a risk and present it unadulterated and unblinking. It is not your usual Broadway fare.

“Eclipsed” stands out for a number of reasons, including the fact that its aesthetic is more on the gritty side, closer to the audience’s sense of the “norm” than, say, elaborate period costumes or works of fantasy. What was your approach to it?

My approach to it was documentary style. The only way I could honor the victims of the Liberian war was to present these characters as truthfully as I can. So that meant I needed to do the right research and not blink on the gritty and ugly facets of the sets and costumes. It was a very bloody and violent war.

clint ramos - set It's important to Ramos to go deep into his research and stay true to the gritty and unpleasant aspects of the "Eclipsed" sets and costumes. Photo by CLINT RAMOS  

Do you have a definite process when it comes to your work? How much effort do you put into achieving historical and cultural accuracy?

Processes differ on each project. I do make sure I approach each one from an emotional point of view — have a solid emotional response to the piece and then really dive into the research and make sure that I am rigorous in terms of accuracy, if the needs are that. There are many plays and musicals that are “period” and the accuracy needs are always contingent on the style of the production. I personally like to tweak accuracy to make pieces more accessible — tweak it to reference the current zeitgeist.

clint ramos - costume diptych "I like stories about outsiders": "Eclipsed" centers on five Liberian women and their story of survival in the middle of war. Photos by JOAN MARCUS  

The work you have done has helped to tell all kinds of different stories. What draws you to particular projects?

I am drawn to projects and stories about belonging and where characters seek out a sense of place, a sense of fitting in. I like stories about outsiders.

Do you ever try to insert Filipino elements or ways of thinking into your designs and how you work?

I think my being Filipino informs everything I do. I don’t necessarily consciously “insert” Filipino-ness (unless it’s “Here Lies Love,” which was about Imelda). I think the way I value work and people and their worth comes from my being Filipino — a dogged pursuit of progress and a deference to what has come before me, I suppose. I also do not take anything for granted. I am not owed anything, I am not entitled to anything — I have to seek out and work for what I want to have and what I want to be. That’s very Filipino.

clint ramos - set turned Ramos's personal approach and process to his work involves forming a "solid emotional opinion," which calls for immersion: He needs to "be consumed by [the work] and find my way back out." Photo by CLINT RAMOS  

How would you describe your approach to theater design in general? Was this something you’ve always stuck with early on, or was it more of an acquired philosophy?

I approach theater design from a highly emotional place. It is a practice for me. Almost like a spiritual endeavor. I usually read the text many times and/or listen to the music if it’s a musical, form a solid emotional opinion, immerse myself in research — any research, get lost (this is important) in it, be consumed by it and find my way back out. Theater design is unique in that it is temporal, it is about physicalizing a temporary phenomenon. I like that. It’s a metaphor for life.

Theater has this great potential to take everyone involved — audience, cast, crew — into another world. What qualities must sets, costumes, and designers themselves possess to achieve the best way to tell a story and increase believability?

You’re right. When it’s really great, theater is powerful. For me, qualities that are necessary for a successful process would be openness, unbridled curiosity, courage, and honesty. Both the creation and the creator must have this in order for the piece to come through successfully.