Creating the World: An Interview with Designer Clint Ramos

after all set model


What drew you to design?

I was always drawn to the theatre. When I was growing up in the Philipines, I got involved in political street theatre. When I was in high school, I would witness actors and performers gathering quickly on the street, doing some kind of protest theatre, and then dispersing before the cops got them. I really love the idea of theatre as a catalyst for change.

If audiences didn’t look at the program, I don’t know that they would connect your two projects here this year, The Colored Museum and after all the terrible things I do. How have you created a career where you get to work on a huge variety of different plays?

Very early on, I made that really conscious decision not to have a style. It has worked favorably for the most part, though it hasn’t always. I remember times when people have said, “I don’t really know what he’s about.” I personally believe that design ought to be open and genre-evasive. It’s different designing for theatre than designing a product or architecture; it’s about the play and the playwright.

What was your process for this play?

When I first read it, one of the things I latched onto topically was this immigrant woman’s story, because I am an immigrant and happen to be Filipino as well. But for my process, I wanted to blind myself to that, because it was the easiest and most immediate way in. I got fascinated then by what was most foreign to me, the milieu in which it was set — this Midwestern town. I find that absolutely exotic and foreign. Whenever I go and work in the Midwest, I love it; I’m a kid in a candy store, because it is so new and odd. Rey had written — I latched onto this one phrase — “these are very ordinary people.” I think when you grow up surrounded by that, you find it very ordinary, but when you are a foreigner, and looking at it from the outside, you actually notice things that people who grow up there wouldn’t notice. So when I was designing a show for the Guthrie Theatre [in Minnesota], I did trips to Wisconsin and took photographs of bookstores, and walked around. I tried to imagine an immigrant woman’s life in that story or in a business like that. I people watched, and assigned feelings and emotions to people I saw on the street. I found my way into the play that way. Because what happens — the collision of events in this play — is extraordinary. I think there’s something highly theatrical about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people.

How did you balance the mundane and the theatrical in the design?

When you look at the design, the idea was to locate a bookstore in the Midwest — and this specific bookstore that I designed was actually a meld of two bookstores that I visited — and to take a cake slicer and slice off a portion of that bookstore, and plop it into the Calderwood Pavilion. You treat that place as an object, and see what tension that creates between an “empty” space used for performance and a “naturalistic” space juxtaposed inside it. For all intents and purposes, this space that is brought into the theatre is very real; the molding is real, everything is real, and where we slice it, we even see part of the innards of the space. Then the play maps it out for you from there. When we go into these more theatrical moments, we can do stuff to that real space, and to the negative space that surrounds it, to theatricalize that emotion. So as a set designer, I believe you’re actually designing two things: one is designing the narrative arc and two is designing emotions.

Many people think of theatrical design as very technical — creating a ground plan, knowing where to place a seam — and while you need great technical knowledge, I’m also hearing in particular that it’s a deeply creative process for you.

There’s a large part of me that actually yearns to design. This may sound odd, but for me it is a spiritual journey because with every project, you go in and get lost and find your way out. You are changed by that. I dont know how other people do it, but I always have to approach it emotionally after I have read the play and talked to the director. You are responding to the play, throwing things at it, and evaluating the truth of the things youve come up with. Its less about asking myself, “Does that look right?” and more about asking “Does this feel right?”


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