The Process of Distress

Gracie Hays talks to ECLIPSED's Tony-winning Costume Designer, Clint Ramos, about finding community, conquering fear, and the uses of sandpaper.

GRACIE HAYS: What drew you to the story of ECLIPSED?
CLINT RAMOS: I’m from Cebu, in the Philippines, which is a place with such political strife. So what drew me in was really this sense of the resiliency of the human spirit. I think what Danai [Gurira] wrote is almost her version of the Trojan War. I love that each character is articulated so well—how in spite of the dark themes in the play, you still see humanity rise through it. I also love that it’s an unblinking look at the lives of African women—they go through these horrific situations that are not made up. It’s a complete portrait. I was very drawn to the vibrancy and the totality of that account of the human condition.

GH: There’s a lot at stake in representing a real-life tragedy. What kind of research did you have to do while designing for ECLIPSED? How do you achieve authenticity on stage, when you’re unable to experience the world you’re portraying firsthand?
CR: I had to completely immerse myself in research. The Liberian Civil War was a very photographed war—I don’t think there was a single photograph that I had not seen. It was also a very protracted war, so there was a lot to mine from—I just sort of sifted through it and tried to find what contained the most authentic feeling for me. The women in the play are all based on real women whom Danai had interviewed, so I really thought that the best way to honor their lives was just to present the truth. If I noticed a T-shirt or a hat or a nuance in the scenery, I replicated it on stage down to the last bullet hole. The hut that they’re staying in is based on maybe five different structures that I found through research. The clothing is sort of an amalgam of all the photographs that I pored over. It almost felt like a detective story, where I was like “Oh, let me see if I can find [The Girl] today,” as I researched.

"My process always involves a lot of fear."

GH: Does your creative process change, from show to show?
CR: Oh, yeah. The hardest part is trying to find a way into every project. I try to read the script over and over again—or, if it’s a musical, I listen to the music over and over again, too. And then I let that sit for a bit, and try to form an emotional response to it. I want to know how it makes me feel. I think of the show as a living thing—I think of it as almost having feelings, too. And then it’s just about gathering as much information as I can. I do a lot of research, and it takes me through a million rabbit holes. I allow myself to get consumed by the material, and then I just hone in and start sketching. After that the collaboration starts with the director and the playwright, and we start to discard the things we don’t need and centralize the aesthetic for the show. But almost always, my process involves a lot of fear [laughs]. A fear that I won’t find my way in and I won’t find my way out. I don’t know how other theater designers or artists do it, but for me I need to be totally immersed. When I was researching for ECLIPSED, it was a very dark time and my husband was like, “Where are you? It’s like you’ve been completely swept into this.” I wanted to know every single story of those women. I saw all of the documentaries. I pored through Danai’s notes. It was really important to me that I be informed.

GH: At what point during the design of ECLIPSED were you able to let go of that fear?
CR: I think, to be honest with you, it was when we started getting into the theater and doing technical rehearsals. I could see that the set was moving the way I wanted it to move, and I could see how not only were we telling this story, but that it was also a viable theatrical experience. I saw it all clicking in, and that gave me a little hope, because it’s always an unknown.

GH: Can you tell me about the process of distressing the costumes?
CR: So, in terms of the costumes, we basically just look at our research, but then for each character, we also follow their backstories. With The Girl, for instance, we thought about how many days was she in the bush hiding, what was she wearing before she got captured, how many miles did she travel, did she have access to a bathroom? Probably not. And then we think about the sweat, and whether there’s a week’s worth of sweat or two weeks’ that’s accumulated. We think about how hot it is, and whether there are any other bodily fluids visible on the clothes. We think about if she had to leave at night, where she was hiding, whether or not she was able to get out of the jungle. Then we look at the garment and put it on a form, and we identify the spots that have contact with outside things. We figure out all these contact points, and then we start painting—literally—the dirt onto the clothing. We also look at like, okay, so if she was running away in the jungle, she would’ve gone through thorns or branches that would’ve torn the clothing in places. We do it with nails, and we use sandpaper to wear the cloth down. We add the sweat marks around the neck and the armpits. There’s a lot of painting and fabric manipulation that goes into the clothing. And with the T-shirts, once we found ones we liked, we had to replicate them. We had to basically silkscreen the T-shirts so we had multiples, like six or eight of each character’s shirts. And on top of all that, the markings need to be permanent, because these costumes go into the washer every night, and they need to look as stinky as the night before. It’s really amazing how good they smell, actually, in spite of how they look [laughs].

GH: Did you have to experiment at all in finding the right look?
CR: Oh, yeah. In particular with the tee-shirts because once we found ones we liked, we had to replicate them. That was one thing, we had to basically silkscreen and reprint a few of the T-shirts, so we had multiples, like six or eight of each character's tee shirts. And then we had to sample to figure out what the right color was for a character or what the most effective color grime was on dark African skin. We had to work to get the sweat right because it needs to be very particular. It couldn't be so yellow that it looked like food product and it couldn't be too red because then it looked like blood, so we had to find the perfect blend.

GH: What made you decide to use T-shirts with American cartoons?
CR: In my research, in almost every photograph I looked at there was this strange juxtaposition of these mundane, Western T-shirts we sort of take for granted in the United States against these vibrant African cloths. The thing that really caught my eye was how oblivious the wearer seemed to be of the irony of these T-shirts. For instance, I would see this poor Liberian woman running from soldiers, and clearly she’s missing a couple teeth, but she’s wearing a giveaway T-shirt from a dentist’s office in Ohio. You know what I mean? I think that just opened up a whole world to me, in terms of the idea that I can actually telegraph something ironically through the costumes. For The Girl, I saw a picture of this nine- or ten-year-old girl who was captured by fighters, and she was wearing this T-shirt with a cartoon figure. I thought, “Wow, that’s essentially a child.” To me, that image became embodied in ECLIPSED with the Rugrats shirt. That symbol was sort of the anchor for innocence lost. And then I thought “Oh, wouldn’t it be a great idea to put The Girl in something so innocent, like a Tweety Bird T-shirt, when she first holds the gun?”

GH: In designing the set how did you choose to represent the women's compound?
CR: I looked at these photographs and one particular location was a bombed out corner of what seemed to be an abandoned, upper-middle class house. I thought 'oh wow' because we can actually locate that place and this bombed out object here on stage. And then I was also intrigued by the idea of why taking that object and putting it inside a box. And then, I thought ‘what if at some point in the play that thing almost moves around inside this box and actually cannot leave the box, and it became almost a reverberation of how the girls were trapped inside this space. So that's sort of the idea behind it. In terms of the detail of the hut, that comes from looking at a lot of photographs. There was one particular photograph of a school that had these bullet-holes—it’s really awful to use the term, but it was almost beautiful—against this blue wall and this blue wall and that was the inspiration I used for the back wall. Everything else is an amalgam of architecture I found in Liberia.

GH: It’s an interesting contrast because there's this real sense of tangibility in the women's hut, but when the action moves outside, the stage becomes much barer and the audience, all of a sudden, has far less physical representations to cling to.
CR: Yeah, totally. We tried to sort of get the hut far away enough from the main point of action and then what you're left with is this red space, which sort of mirrors that red African soil. It’s so great because it also represents the bloodshed that has been poured onto that soil.

GH: Can you talk about the experience of winning a Tony Award last year, for Best Costume Design?
CR: Winning the Tony was very special, because I don’t think it’s common to win for a show like this. ECLIPSED doesn’t have any kind of glamour, so it kind of gave me hope for American theater. The fact that a show like ours could be considered for such a big prize made me hopeful that people are actually listening and looking at design that’s not necessarily glitzy or glamorous. I think it sent a message that storytelling involving the darkest parts of the human condition is actually worth rewarding. I’m so lucky that I work in the theater—and as an immigrant to this country, all I ever really wanted was just to belong, so just being able to work in this business has felt like a dream. I never thought that a life like this would be my fate.

"In almost every photograph I looked at there was this strange juxtaposition of these mundane, Western T-shirts we sort of take for granted in the United States against these vibrant African cloths."

GH: You moved to New York from the Philippines when you were eighteen, to attend Tisch School for the Arts. Can you talk about what the experience of immigrating to the U.S. was like for you?
CR: It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I was just this young kid from the Philippines, and I knew that I had to move—not necessarily to America, but to a cultural center. New York just sort of made sense because I already spoke English. I was terrified that I wouldn’t find a community, but I was also exposed to so much that it made me reconsider what was possible in terms of being in the arts and creating. Because New York is so diverse, it actually made me feel more at home than when I was back home in the Philippines. Growing up I was gay and I was also overweight, so in a way I was a minority in my own home. When I came to New York and was able to be a part of the theater community, I just fit right in. It was just like, “Oh yeah, this is the island of messed-up toys and I’m just one of them. This is fantastic.”

GH: How do you think that experience has informed your work as an artist?
CR: I always feel like an outsider—in spite of feeling like, yes, I actually have a community, I still have this deep-rooted feeling that I never belong. It makes me hyper-vigilant—I feel like I see things that people take for granted, and that non-outsiders might not consider. I’m attracted to stories about belonging, and stories about movement. I love broad stories that consider their narrative in a sort of global way. I’m always attracted to international stories—if it’s an American play, I always think of it within a global context, and try to figure out how this particular American society on stage is impacting the larger world.

GH: So, I read that you were initially interested in directing. What led you to change course and instead pursue costume design?
I think I realized early on the amount of interface I would have with actors in the process and I just didn't think that I could handle it. Watching directors now, I still think that. I don't think I'd be able to talk all these intelligent actors into producing a certain vision. That requires a lot of skill and understanding and I didn't think I had it in me. I didn't think I had that gift of working intimately with actors and being that close and using them basically because you know, in a the actors are a director's tools for his or her vision. That requires a lot of work and a lot of diplomacy and a lot of patience and a lot of skill and time and I just didn't think I could do it. I think I was more interested in the physical world. And indeed, I was. When I studied to become a costume designer I said, 'oh this is great, I can just control the physical world and I can control what the inhabitants of this world look like.' So, it just made sense to me. I realized I wouldn't have to deal with feelings [laughs] or interpretations or anything like that.

GH: Was design something that you were always interesting in while you were growing up?
CR: Yeah, my mother was an aesthete and introduced me and to aesthetics and the arts, so I'm fortunate that I had an awareness of what design was. I've always had this sort of consciousness about it.

GH: So, you were in San Francisco earlier in January for the SF MOMA Fog Fair. Had you spent much time here before?
CR: Not a lot. I'd done a couple shows in the Bay Area before. I also had a great aunt who lived in San Francisco when I was growing up and I stayed with her for something like two weeks when I first moved to The States. But I had never really landed in San Francisco. It’s such an authentic city. I was just telling my husband that that would be a great place to move to. When we feel New York staring down at us San Francisco feels so refreshing. I think what's great about this city is that it has this artistic vibrancy, but I never feel suffocated and it seems like I can breathe.

GH: Is there anything in particular you hope San Francisco audiences will take away from Eclipsed?
CR: I just hope that they enjoy the show as much as we enjoyed creating it. In spite of who these women are and where they are in the world, these are actually familiar stories. Sexual assault is a universal thing, and crime against women happens everywhere. In a way, these women are us. I think, especially in our present political climate, and after the last campaign season we’ve gone through, and now with the Women’s March—I think these stories are vital. Women’s lives matter. That’s just the bottom line. I have a newborn daughter and I look at her and I worry because this world is just not nice to women. I look at her and I pray that the world will change. So I hope that San Francisco enjoys the play, but also that they can identify with these women, because they are us.