Clint Ramos did not intend to become a theatrical designer. “I come from a long line of lawyers,” he says. So when Ramos decided to change majors from pre-law after his first year at the University of the Philippines, he was terrified. “I wrote my mother this long letter, which she still has today, explaining why I just couldn’t do it.” Two Drama Desk nominations (one for set design and one for costume design), an OBIE for Sustained Excellence in Design, a TDF/Irene Sharaff Young Master Award, and a 2016 Tony Award win for his costume design of Eclipsed later, Ramos clearly made the right decision. “I guess you could see it as, ‘Now that I’ve done this to my family, I really have to prove a point.’ You know?” he says with a laugh.
Drawn to theatre’s sense of community, Ramos first considered directing; but his preference for time to invent over time in rehearsal and his craving to craft worlds onstage, led him to costume and scenic design. “You actually have a lot of agency in terms of eliciting a response from an audience,” Ramos says. “You can present something that would make an audience gasp, or think, or just elicit a response that could augment the action.” When he realized his influence “that was when I got really hooked.”
He’s witnessed those reactions in no less than four New York productions just in the past few months—like the response to his set of Playwrights Horizons’ Mankind. “We had this pre-show where the whole set is just rotating on this turntable. I’ve heard from people coming back from the show, ‘That thing rotating really made me think about what was about to happen,’” he recalls. “Those little comments and reactions buoy you to think, ‘I’m doing something that matters.’”
These reactions derive from the passion Ramos invests in his work. “I’ve always approached research from a very emotional point of view,” he says. Be it his costumes for the current revival of Once On This Island or last season’s Six Degrees of Separation, or his sets for MCC’s current production of Relevance, the designer researches to discover and devise a show’s aura and tone.
An effective design feels seamless, contributing to the story without pulling focus. In the case of Once On This Island, Ramos’ design hinged on a gradual evolution of its characters from hurricane-ravaged islanders into the gods in the unfolding fable. Because of the allusions to post-storm Haiti, director Michael Arden challenged Ramos to incorporate trash and found objects into his design. “The whole unifying thought of the design was: How do we create divinity from the discarded?”
Master of challenges like these speak to the roster of varied collaborators looking to work with Ramos—directors like Liesel Tommy and Scott Ellis, Leigh Silverman and Robert O’Hara, Moises Kaufman and Billy Porter. Ramos says he consciously switches up his partnerships. “That’s the magic of having the opportunity to work with new people. When it’s really amazing, they challenge you to think about everything differently—about the way you look at life differently,” he says. “I think that’s what I yearn for and that’s what keeps me in the business.
Ramos explains his creative process for designing TiMoune and the gods for Once on This Island:
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.