How Actors Helped Create the Costumes for ‘Once on This Island’

Photo Source: Joan Marcus

Nothing about the Broadway revival of “Once of This Island,” running currently at the Circle in the Square Theatre, is derivative—least of which, its costumes. Actualized from the mind of designer Clint Ramos, in close collaboration with director Michael Arden, the actors are adorned to honor real-life hurricane victims throughout the Caribbean, a feat requiring scrutinous research and expansive imagination. Ramos spoke with Backstage about the symbiotic actor-costume relationship and the one thing all aspiring costume designers should know.

How did you originally get into costume design?
I grew up in the Philippines, where I got into political theater. A lot of theater artists were doing street theater as a form of protest. I really enjoyed the community, and that’s what got me started. I just stuck with the theater. I wanted to be a director, but I thought I just didn’t have that part in me where you are able to convince a lot of actors of your vision. I was very interested in the physical aspects of the production, so I ended up doing set and costume design, being more and more fascinated and falling in love with the idea of what the world looks like.

What led you to this production of “Once on This Island”?
I got a phone call from Michael Arden, whom I had met briefly before. I’ve always been such a huge fan of his work. He asked me if I was interested and of course I said yes because I love this musical. He explained to me what he was trying to do, which was more than a revival; he wanted to reconceive the production so that it would be more aligned with the world we live in now and where we are as a global community. That really got me excited because it meant we could take what is usually done in a folkloric kind of way to a more potently political and relevant revival.

What was the process for finding the look of the costuming?
We were lucky because Michael was really clear about his intentions. Because we were honoring those hurricane victims in Haiti, in the Caribbean, we had a treasure trove of research. It is so photographed. Every single piece of the storytellers’ costumes is based on a piece of research. The only way I could honor those people was to really get it right. There is a lot of garbage, basically, that the hurricane has brought with it, so it only made sense to me that any sort of clothing or costume items that they had would have to come out of that.

How does the costume designer’s role affect the actor?
With every project, I have to primarily consider actors. They’re going to wear it. It has to seem organic, like the character actually made that choice to put on that piece of clothing that morning. That only can come from a close collaboration with the actor. With this particular project, as casting developed, we kind of recalibrated the looks based on who the actor was. Once the actor was cast, we had meetings with each actor and said, “Here’s the look I’m thinking of, what do you think?” It’s truly helpful because then they have a sense of ownership of what they wear. They feel invested in getting it right, as well.

Does the actor inform the costume or does the costume inform the actor?
The more the actor is involved, the better we can actually make the design work. Getting the design early on and getting the actors rehearsal pieces that are the approximate size is of utmost importance. They need to truly live in that clothing. Otherwise, it will just look like a costume. A lot of the actors in “Once on This Island” discovered things in rehearsal because they were wearing the costume. Alex Newell, for example, at first was daunted by his costume [and said], “I’m wearing a tablecloth—how much does that weigh?” I said, “I am just going to put it in rehearsal so you can play around with it” and he did. He created movement that he only could have found by working with the costume, and what he found was magnificent.

Do you have any recommendations for someone who wants to get into costume design?
If you want to get into costume design, you need to get into storytelling first. You need to be invested in telling a story because most costume design is about the character. It isn’t necessarily about fashion. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into and know for certain that you’re interested in telling a story.

Ready to hit the stage? Check out Backstage's theater audition listings!