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The Design of Change

Clint Ramos is a designer, educator, activist, and creative producer. Lindsay Jones is a composer, designer, educator, performer, and advocate. Together, they have been friends and collaborators for many years, but each have also individually dedicated their efforts towards creating greater inclusivity and collaboration in the theatre community. They recently sat down together to discuss the intersection of being activists and artists, and their paths going forward to creating lasting and meaningful change for the next generation of theatremakers.

Lindsay Jones: Is there a specific moment you remember when you were like, “I can’t just be a passive observer anymore, I need to jump in and begin to change things”?

Clint Ramos: It didn’t happen like a quick turn, it was like an accumulation. I’m an immigrant. I went to grad school and it was mostly white folks. I saw these people were being invited to create the kind of work that was exciting to me and somehow I wasn’t. I experienced the usual immigrant shit where, before a meeting with the director, I’d arrive early and practice my English in front of a mirror. I couldn’t find a place in the theatre community. I couldn’t locate myself that way.

The biggest thing those experiences taught me is that I needed to take action. I needed to learn more and find some sort of family. That was the first real act of actively seeking a better world, to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. When you move here, you buy into things—like if you’re hardworking, you’ll get everything you want. It’s the land of opportunity. But I didn’t find that to be true.

When did you start thinking, “I gotta change this?”

Lindsay: There were two moments that really affected me. When you work as a freelance designer, it’s a pretty isolated life. It’s just like the circus—you unpack your tent, do your act for the town, then pick up the stakes and go to the next town to do it again. That’s what my life was like for a long time. Then a friend of mine who was a designer, who I had worked with on several shows, was on his way to tech, walking from company housing to a ten out of twelve, and he literally dropped dead in the middle of the street. He had a heart attack and died. It really affected me.

Clint: I was in tech when that happened. I remember it being such a hard tech. I remember thinking he dropped dead because of what we do.

Lindsay: I thought, Wow, that could happen to me. But also it could happen to any of us. There are not that many of us in the world of stage design, and we all have similar concerns. If one of us goes down, that really affects all of us.

The other thing was when the Tony Awards eliminated the sound design categories in 2014. There was a lot of pain and confusion in the sound design community. I wanted to help channel that in a way that felt positive but also productive.

A lot of people at the time were like, “We should just make sure the Tony Awards don’t have good sound and then they’ll understand what sound design is,” and I was like, “That doesn’t help anybody and just makes everybody mad at us. What we really should do is figure out ways to explain to people what we do and show how we do it. Then hopefully they can figure out ways to appreciate it.”

From there, I began working on the Collaborator Party with John Gromada, which is an annual celebration of the entire theatre community. Then I worked with a bunch of other sound designers to help create Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association (TSDCA), which is an organization about community, education, and advocacy for sound designers and composers. Once you start on a path of trying to figure out how to make things more equitable, you find more and more ways to learn.

Clint: When I think about how the art I create is informed by activism… I can only work on something I could possibly be consumed by. It really needs to hit me on a deep level, like something that explores a solution to a social-justice dilemma.

Lindsay: What I really love about your design aesthetic is that everything you do is going to challenge the audience’s perceptions. You always seem to push it to another level—which, subliminally, forces the audience to confront internal biases and prejudices about whatever they expected.

I want to look for ways to accentuate or highlight the sort of sneaky underlying message of the play. I find your work endlessly inspiring for finding those messages.

Clint: One of the things I appreciate about working with you is that you get to the root of the idea quickly. You’re already in tune with what’s important. It also doesn’t feel like work, it feels very engaged.

Clint Ramos wearing a dark-colored hat and shirt and pointing to a display on the wall.

Clint Ramos. Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

Lindsay: That’s what makes theatre exciting, when you’re in a room full of people and the ideas are popping and you’re feeding off one another. Everyone being on the same page, being treated equally, being seen… It’s what keeps me going.

Clint: A lot of what we’ve been doing over many years is going into spaces where we’re holding powerful people accountable. I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but I assume all designers do that. I assume that is part of going into space. In order for us to have a functioning democratic system within the institution, that needs to happen.

People are like: “They rabble-rouse inside of space.” No actually we don’t. We get invited into the same space over and over again. We ask the questions that are important.

When we were coming up, all of our mentors of color were telling us to build armor to protect ourselves. But if we tell that to the younger generation, they look at us like we have two heads, like, “Why do we have to build armor? Fix it so we don’t have to.”

Lindsay: Playwright and director Robert O’Hara said something to me that I’ve kept forever: “Just be bold and show them who you are.” I think that is valuable both in art as well as in searching to create a better community. You have to stay true to yourself and also be willing to push beyond what people think is acceptable. That’s where real change starts to happen.

What do you think is the benefit of coalition-building?

Clint: There’s no non-benefit, you know? For me, coalition-building is about getting everybody in the room, hearing everybody, parsing out issues that collide, and pushing that forward. Any systematic power-holding body wants to divide and conquer to hold onto that power, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Part of what’s hard is fighting human nature, particularly in show business. A lot of it is built on a star system, where people actually want to put themselves in front of the issue, and that’s where it becomes really complicated.

Lindsay: More and more we are finding that the system as it is currently set up is that you enter the business, you spend X number of years being taken advantage of until you figure out that your work environment could be better and how to protect yourself. The majority of coalition-building is making sure everyone has the same information so that not just the experienced people or the people willing to put up with all the bullshit are the only ones who can succeed.

Clint: Or have the resources to put up with it. With coalition-building, we are working towards creating an even starting point for everybody. This goes for NO MORE 10 Out Of 12s and the work we’re doing at Design Action and even the larger racial reckoning that’s happening in American theatre.

We cannot separate the American theatre from America. When you think about the American theatre, particularly Broadway and how that is the template for regional theatres both artistically and the way progression of power actually happens… American capitalism is not the same as any other capitalism. The original capital in this country—the land—was stolen. Then the labor was stolen. Both of those capitals are illegal and immoral.

Then we think about the American theatre… Its practices have deep roots in American capitalism. Then we talk about unpaid internships, which has roots in that particular system. American theatre is like 98 percent composed of liberal people, but until we actually acknowledge the system we’ve inherited, we are not going to be able to successfully dismantle it. When we say, “No more ten out of twelves,” it is not only good for everybody, it’s actually an anti-racist move.

Lindsay: Looking back at this past year and a half, I feel like people are at least becoming aware of how they can do better. The hardest part is going to be when theatre returns to its full capacity. Will we keep trying to make things better, even as we are trying to do business? It’s hard to say.

Clint: Do we have the capacity? I think we do, but that requires work and that requires decentering ourselves. All of us, regardless of race, have to acknowledge that decentering ourselves is going to require us to actually tap into our own humanity. If we look at ourselves as good, well-meaning people and think of our story as promulgating the right and just thing, we’re actually doing a disservice, as opposed to thinking, I’m a human being and this move was not so good, that was kind of messed up. Individual accountability is a big thing.

A lot of theatrical institutions are grasping at straws. But they need to create policies that will actually change systematic programming.

Lindsay: With the organizations I’m involved with, we want to make sure people understand each of them are there as resources to help people. There are other organizations based on being more aggressive or calling people out. There’s room for both types of advocacy. There does need to be a We See You White American Theater that pushes hard and makes people uncomfortable while at the same time having NO MORE 10 Out Of 12s to be like, “We did the research, here’s the data that backs this up, here are the solutions we’ve discovered based on that data, let’s create think tanks where you can start to work as a team to implement these ideas.” But to be clear, NO MORE 10 Out Of 12s would not have existed without the leadership and bravery of We See You White American Theater.

What kind of advocacy would you direct people towards? Should they start pushing for change in an aggressive way or should they join an organization that is more collaborative?

Lindsay Jones sitting in an auditorium, wearing a black shirt, and typing on a laptop.

Lindsay Jones. Photo by Max Herman of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Clint: I think individuals should go to the thing that moves them. It’s like the way we approach art-making: I can only go to the thing that keeps me up at night.

Within those two extremes there are nuances. It’s really knowing the history of this country, knowing the history of the American theatre, knowing the real history of our working conditions. It changes our own story about being good people who create art into, “I participated in a system for a long time.” That is important because it decentralizes us as individuals—our individual goodness is irrelevant. There’s a system at work here that’s larger than you or me. The question then is how do we actually move forward?

The young designers I’m interfacing with are capable of much more than I was or that I am. That to me is magic and where the hope is. These rising designers and production crews are actually doing the deed.

This is the moment for them to put aside their personal pride and instead say, “What did I do? How can I begin to make changes so that I don’t keep doing it?"

Lindsay: You and I, we’ve already had all of these years of trying to make others feel comfortable, saying, “I’m gonna let this behavior go because I know so and so is a well-meaning person.” These young people who don’t necessarily have those experiences with those people are able to look at it more objectively and say, “Whoa, this is a fucked-up situation and I cannot participate in this.”

Clint: I think these younger folks might think we knew what was just and unjust, that we weren’t being gaslit, it’s just that we’ve put up with it, been complacent. When we were coming up, all of our mentors of color were telling us to build armor to protect ourselves. But if we tell that to the younger generation, they look at us like we have two heads, like, “Why do we have to build armor? Fix it so we don’t have to.”

I look at myself in a metaphorical mirror and without this armor I’m completely covered in bruises. And when I talk to young BIPOC designers who say, “I feel like you want me to build armor. Did you tell that young white designer to build armor?”… What I’m seeing in that is not only a product of youth, it’s actually a deep understanding of where we are.

Lindsay: I think what’s so important about the objectivity of the next generation of designers is how they’re able to look at things with less emotional investment and more objective investment. It’s important that when leaders of institutions get called out, they also maintain that objectivity as well. It’s not necessarily a criticism of that leader as a human, but as the person responsible for how their theatre operates..

Clint: Part of what I’ve been contemplating is why is that so hard?

Lindsay: I don’t think anybody chooses to work in theatre unless they believe in it 150 percent. Let’s face it, it’s a hard life. It’s emotionally draining. It’s physically draining. It’s hard to make a living in theatre, even under the best circumstances. So people who commit themselves are doing it because they are passionate about it. They are almost saying, “I’m going to do good and change the world through this art form.”

If you say to them, “Hey, actually, while you were attempting to do good and change the world, you were actually doing these harmful things,” I think it hurts them to think that about themselves in that way. So people are like, “It’s not possible I did harm because I never meant to do it.” But it’s totally possible for someone to do harm without understanding how they did it. This is the moment for them to put aside their personal pride and instead say, “What did I do? How can I begin to make changes so that I don’t keep doing it?

Clint: It’s hard to parse the personal from the systemic. I think that’s where we are in the American theatre right now. Even folks who are advocating, and I include myself in this group… There are times when I feel like I’m walking on eggshells and I have to check myself.

Lindsay: At the end of the day, we all are freelance artists looking for the next gig and we all want to be seen as hirable. So it’s this delicate balance of how much we can push, how much we can say, before we’re potentially endangering ourselves as a commodity.

Clint: You just said commodity. Literally, it’s a market. And we are part of this system, this American capitalist system based on racism. I think if we understand that, we have more compassion for each other. I will understand why I’m being bad-mouthed by another designer, because they are competing with me.

This leads to the next question: How can we support each other? We have to have more compassion for each other and understand we are all part of the system. One of the ways the system fuels itself is through dividing and conquering.

Lindsay: There are some theatres and institutions that have made well thought-out, conscious changes that will address problems long-term. Then there are institutions that have made fear-based decisions based on optics. And there is a shift that is currently happening based on those changes.

When we go back to work, what are the things we can do to convert changes that were made in a short-term, panic-based environment into lasting changes?

Clint and Lindsay wearing semi-formal attire and smiling in front of a background with "Playwrights" all over it.

Clint and Lindsay. Photo courtesy of Playwrights Horizons.

Clint: I know a couple of institutions that said they were going to get rid of ten out of twelves. What is the plan surrounding that? How can designers have ownership over that solution? We go into these theatres on a rotational basis. If we create a culture where we actually are aware of what those particular institutions have changed or have promised to change, we’re not walking in there unaware.

I’m going to ask everybody to be more aware of what is happening. That has always been part of our jobs, people just opted not to do it. A lot of the designers… We really would want to get in there and solve a company’s problem for them, but we can’t. We have to allow them to grapple with their own humanity.

I think a lot of times people confuse advocacy and activism with anger and aggression. But activism is based entirely in compassion. You’re working to make things more fair for everyone.

Lindsay: Every theatre in America runs differently. Not only do they have to come up with their own solution because it works best for their institution, but they actually have to come up with their own solution because they need to personally invest in it.

Clint: Part of that buying in is knowing you’re not a bad person. You are a human being in the theatre who does good and bad things and some of the bad things cause harm.

Lindsay: People ask me, “Why have designers emerged as primary advocates?” My theory is that, as designers, we are looking at things from an objective viewpoint and saying what’s working, what’s not working, how do we fix those things so that it’s done and it’s ready to go by opening. We’re problem solvers.

Clint: I agree. I’ve always said this is why designers make really great artistic leaders. I also feel like part of why designers have become really vocal is that we’ve publicly acknowledged the caste system that has been created in the American theatre. We are part of a team. When we premiere a new play or a new musical, we are there locked in arms with the director and the playwright and the composer. And what happens after the end of a production meeting? The playwright and director are whisked away with the dramaturg and the artistic director and given feedback on the work they created with us. That alone means there is a hierarchy and that our work is negligible because we are not invited into that process.

Lindsay: Subliminally, what that tells me is, as the designer of the play, I need to emotionally de-invest, because I’m not allowed to be in that part of the situation.

Clint: We want to have more agency and be acknowledged for our contributions. These are productions that go on to get Pulitzers and Tonys. Yes we do get royalties, but what I’m talking about is this unspoken caste system.

Lindsay: You have a group of people at the top who are creators, and they receive more financial compensation. Then there’s the design team underneath them, and we are being actively disincentivized from participating beyond our jobs within the space. We’re not given any sort of publicity. As a result, our gut reaction is to mostly disengage, because we feel like we just gave everything and weren’t appreciated or compensated the way we want to be. So designers really do have the ability to say the things that need to be said, because they can’t make us any less well-known at this point.

Clint: But also we have direct contact with the directors, who have more power in those rooms. If there’s anything I want for designers it’s for them to step into their power. To say, “Hey director, this is happening in my department and we’ve got to fix it.” I want us to slowly dismantle the idea that what we’re being told we could have is actually what we could have.

Lindsay: In terms of advocacy, I like to work outside of traditional channels, to create coalitions that are not surrounded by any traditional structure. There are other people who believe the only way change can be achieved is through these traditional structures, unions being an example of them. I am a huge supporter of my union, but I am also able to look at them and see that there is a lot of architecture and bureaucracy that prevents change from happening.

Is it more effective to change the traditional structures from within or is it better to create noise from the outside that forces the structure to change?

Clint: I don’t know what is most effective. I don’t think it’s either/or. What’s most important is that there be a system where we can hold folks accountable. If we allow ourselves that kind of space in our minds and hearts, we are able to question things.

That to me is the thing about working from within. I think it’s the same question about the American theatre. Do you rebuild the house or do you burn it down? I’ve invested a lot of time and I happen to love the American theatre. I’m not here to burn it down, I’m here to transform it so I can continue loving it.

Lindsay: It is important to remember we’re all coming to the theatre with love. We want it to thrive. We want it to be the best it can be, and holding it accountable is part of love. You can’t just love something that totally disregards you. I think a lot of times people confuse advocacy and activism with anger and aggression.

But activism is based entirely in compassion. You’re working to make things more fair for everyone. The challenge is to present our case, and have it seen with compassion, and for people to acknowledge they have done harm and be received with compassion. For people to be able to say, “I have made mistakes and here’s what they are.” And for the community to say, “We accept this and let’s move forward.”

Clint: Exactly. “I have made mistakes under a system that has allowed me to make these mistakes.” That larger system is ripe for that kind of phenomenon to grow in. But we all did fall in love under the purest of circumstances.

Lindsay: That’s so true.

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Thoughts from the curators

What would it mean to have a culture of justice in theatrical design? This week, we are uplifting the work of the design community, both on stage and off. This series aims to build a deeper understanding of what work is being done and engage in discussions around the impact of structural oppression on our communities, the social position of designers in the larger theatre industrial complex, the interconnectedness of artistry and advocacy, and strategies for co-creating a roadmap into the future. There’s a lot to cover. We’re not going to get to everything or everyone this time around. Luckily, this is only the beginning.

Design (in a Time of Reckoning)

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