A Designer's Journey: A Chat with Tony Winning Costume Designer, Clint Ramos

Noah Golden

Clint Ramos has dressed Jake Gyllenhaal (“Sunday In The Park With George”), Allison Janney (“Six Degrees of Separation”), Lupita Nyong’o (“Eclipsed”) and Bradley Cooper (“The Elephant Man”), all on Broadway and in the last few years. He’s designed costumes for modern, New York commuters (Broadway’s “In Transit”), 15th-century revolutionaries (Off-Broadway’s “Joan Of Arc: Into The Fire”) and mischievous fairies (the upcoming “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare In The Park).  When asked about his extremely eclectic resume, Ramos said he is “attracted to projects that are about belonging: a character or a group of characters who are looking to belong.” A broad category, but clearly one that has served him well. The Tony-nominated costume designer has many high profile shows on his resume and is gearing up for a busy fall which includes Michael Arden’s revival of “Once On This Island.”

To learn more about Ramos, his process and where his passion for design originated, I spoke to him by phone. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Where are you from originally?

CR: I was born and raised in the Philippines. I got the theater bug pretty early on in high school. I was involved in political street theater. Then I moved to the States to pursue further studies in the theater and ended up getting my masters in design at Tisch [School of the Arts]. I just stayed and started working. I feel in love with the idea of being able to create that physical world and also being able to create what the inhabitants of that world look like. And, of course, in the theater that was compounded with the idea that there was a story you were trying to tell. I think all of that can be contributed to be wanting to become a designer. Also, I love the theater. I'm addicted to it. I don't know anything else. Being a designer gave me a place in the theater that I belonged in.

How did you go from a student to a Broadway-level designer?

Ramos' work in  “Joan Of Arc: Into The Fire” (Joan Marcus)

Ramos' work in “Joan Of Arc: Into The Fire” (Joan Marcus)

CR: A lot of it really is sheer luck. There are so many talented designers out there but I can only speak for myself. I worked hard. I have that almost unrelenting immigrant work ethic [laughs]. I also didn't really say no to any kind of work, when I started, as long as I was working in the theater. I'd go to prop shops or costume shops or go intern with a carpenter somewhere. Through the years, I've formed relationships with directors and other designers and I was able to become part of their team. To me, I value hard work and also make sure that I’m always open and curious to learn new things. Because that’s one of the wonderful things about being a designer, you get to travel to these very strange places, we're able to explore worlds and time periods and immerse ourselves it in.

You've worked on very different shows, from realistic ones like "Six Degrees" to more formalistic ones like your work with Shakespeare In The Park, how does that affect your approach when designing?

CR: Every project I have to approach differently. I think what's constant is that it's always looking to find the best way into the project. I know it's kinda amorphous, emotional gobbledygook, but I think it's important to me to read the text or listen to the music many times and then create an emotional response to it. With realistic projects like "Eclipsed" or, yes, "Six Degrees of Separation" there is a lot of photographic research that can be mined for that. There are things that are undeniable. This is what they looked like in 1989 or something like that. Those are parameters. Within those parameters is a million options. With others, like "Midsummer's Night Dream," the world is created. But not only is the world created, you are also creating a culture. So, it's almost like starting from scratch. What do the fairies look like? A lot of that is dependent on how the director sees the show.

What was it like designing for "Sunday In The Park," a show based around an artist's body of work?

CR: A project like that I have to understand the process in which the work was created. So, these two brilliant men, Sondheim and Lapine, decided to do a work based on another brilliant artist like Seurat. So, it was like dealing with two boxes of art. With that piece, I was not interested at first with the painting. I was interested in what drove Seurat and what drove Sondheim and Lapine to create the musical. I think it's about a man trying to find his place in art, right?

The constant search for satisfaction and the drive towards pushing boundaries and creating new frontiers. I think all three men did that. That dictated the way I looked at their appearance. So, the designs for the costumes weren't period clothing, they were abstract representations of what the painting was. I only used the 11 colors that Seurat painted with and designing the whole show that way. I thought about how Seurat did it, which was put the pieces together, present it and the audience will assemble it themselves. All of the clothes you see on stage were cut like a modern garment, but the way they were put together created that period silhouette.