Ohio Theater Alum Nathan Ramos recently just won the East West Players Prestigious See Change Award. East West Players (EWP), the nation’s longest running professional theatre of color and the largest creator of Asian Pacific artistic work chose Nathan and his play “Base Degrees” as the first place winner.
The press release for the award describes his play: “Base Degrees” explores the pursuit of success and its costs as Benji, a first generation Asian American struggles in New York City to find his voice as his writing career stalls. As the professional paths of his best friend Sheila and his half sister Laura begin to blossom, he begins to unravel. “Base Degrees” explores what lengths we are willing to go to realize our dreams, and whether morality is tied to upward mobility.
Here is another press release quote about the purpose of the award: “The theme of seeking plays that delve into the shifting demographics of the US seems to have caught onto something, based on the sheer volume and breadth of submissions,” says Snehal Desai, EWP Literary Manager and Artistic Associate. “It was an exceptional field of plays and the three winners stand out as sterling examples of reflecting our theme of 2042: See Change. The eight plays highlighted today are engaging, smart, and compelling works that incisively explore the changing American landscape with humor and humility. They really dove into the theme of cultural intersectionality and they are works that all of us involved with this competition look forward to seeing on the stage.” Read more by clicking on this link,
Keep reading to check out our exclusive interview with Nathan about this awesome honor he was given!
- What was your inspiration for your play “Base Degrees”?
Two years ago, I began to get disillusioned by the industry, and I didn’t have a thick enough skin when I would hear comments like, ‘you’re too Asian, you’re not Asian enough,’ or even things meant to be positive but felt more like inadvertent racial idealization, ‘it’s so good you’re a tall Asian!’ Some words even completely altered my self perception and self worth, ‘You’ll never work in TV/film because of your cleft lip and palate.’ As I was trying to work through my feelings, I recalled words from a fellow writer that told me ‘we can’t wait for anyone to write the roles we want to play.’ It made me begin to think about how I viewed myself in the theater world, the fact that there has never been an Asian sex scene on primetime television, there has never been a romanticized/sexualized asian male lead, that I have never seen myself as a protagonist, because I don’t exist in the mainstream story as a main character.
The actual inspiration for some of the content of Base Degrees came from an article about how Lena Dunham and the cast of Girls was just a result of nepotism in the industry. I wanted to explore the dialogue about the wealth gap, racial representation (which girls has received much flack about), and upward mobility within the industry, and not simply vilify those that happened to be born into privilege. The See Change 2042 Playwriting Competition is based on the estimation that in 2042, people of color will be the majority in America. I wanted my play to reflect that world, and to also portray women, minorities, and the lgbt community in a multi-faceted light.
- How did you feel when you found out you won this awesome award?I was helping a friend write a Medieval French Newspaper for one of her classes at NYU. We were writing while getting drunk at Horchata, a Mexican Restaurant during Happy Hour near Washington Square Park. I started sobbing when I got the call, and whenever I cry, because of my cleft palate, I always start dry heaving because my nose doesn’t drain very well. So I was crying and dry heaving when I heard the news. I am sure Snehal, the literary manager at East West Players was so confused. It’s my first play I’ve ever submitted to anything, and my first full length play I’ve written so it was definitely a big shock.
3.What do you think theater companies can do to support playwrights/theater artists of color?
I think it has a lot to do with visibility, and not just ‘Asian in the ensemble holding a spear’ or ‘Asian as a servant/monster’ character. I know a lot of actors that just don’t go in for roles that feel like a marginalization, which then in turn lets the casting directors say that there just isn’t any minority talent. Asians can and want to be the romantic leads, Asians can and should be vital to the story and not just adjacent and silent. It’s fucking 2015, come on.
The problem is theaters are inevitably businesses, and because the Asian community is so fractured and the arts aren’t emphasized as a a viable occupation as a part of the community a lot of the time, the demand is somewhat scattered.
Asian representation is really beginning to move toward positive change, but a step toward positive perception could be if producers did Dinner with Friends on Broadway starring Sandra Oh, John Cho, Daniel Dae Kim, and Lucy Liu. Asian kids would see hot talented intelligent people that look like them doing what they love without being villified, silenced, or exoticized. Asians need a unifying brand, and I know I would definitely hang that poster up in my room for the rest of my life. Let Asians just sit at a table and drink a glass of wine on stage. Making the Asian experience a universal experience through specific truthful storytelling would also help non-minority casting directors and other creatives see that Asians can be humanized instead of exoticized.
- What was your favorite thing about going to OU? Big Mamas, Goodfellas, Casa Nueva, Della Zona, Donkey, DP Dough, 3.75 Chinese (which i’m sure is much more expensive now). I didn’t realize how grounding it was to be in the middle of nature until I came to new york and was surrounded by concrete. I grew into the person I am today at OU. I learned a lot of really difficult lessons, one of which Shelley Delaney told me. I had been upset about feeling like I wasn’t ever the first choice for anything, and she told me that I don’t need to be the most talented, I just need to be the most reliable, and that’s why they could depend on me in a pinch. That advice has gotten me more jobs than anything else in my acting career. Everyone is talented, but you can only depend on a choice few when it comes to collaboration and making art.
5. What’s your favorite kind of dessert?
Favorite homemade dessert: Mom’s pineapple upside down cake. Favorite NYC dessert: A tie between Harb’s Green Tea Mousse chiffon cake with red bean and Amanda Freitag’s cocoa carrot cake with cheesecake ice cream, carrot caramel sauce, and candied walnuts.
6.Tell us more about the background for your play
Base degrees’ title comes from a monologue by Brutus in Julius Caesar. He says about Caesar in the early hours on the ides of March, ‘but when he once attains the utmost round, he then unto the ladder turns his back, looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend’, meaning once Caesar gains power, he will forget where he came from, what got him there, and why he ascended in the first place. In an age where our scope always seems to be ever narrowing, how do we direct our sights upward without disregarding the world around us?
When Base Degrees begins, it is the third year of living In the Heights for Benji, his half sister Laura, and their best friend Sheila. When Laura’s chance encounter with writing star Orson begins to lead to opportunity, and Sheila’s lucrative online business leads her to moving out and moving up, Benji feels stalled. After a one-night stand, and a life changing tragedy, the characters must react to the changes, new pressures, and shifting relationships that arise when fame and upward mobility come to fruition.
Base Degrees explores the different ways we pursue our ideas of success, and what success actually means. Benji has done everything in a conventional sense, but seems to be thwarted at every turn within the traditional channels. Laura falls into good fortune by ambiguously scrupulous ways, but is genuinely talented and wouldn’t get there by any other means, however, does this lead to a moral quandary? Orson was born with a silver spoon in his mouth so he struggles with knowing if he’s actually talented, if he would be where he is without his mother, and must deal with wondering if the people around him are his friends, or just want to use him. Sheila has achieved wealth doing perceived immoral acts, but she uses the money for only good deeds, so does it matter how she has accrued this wealth? Joel doesn’t wake up in the morning wanting to see his face on the side of a bus, he just wants to eat good food, do his job well, love those around him, and leave the world a little better than he found it. Within these pursuits of success, is there a correct or morally superior way of living?
- Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights?
Playwrights are the most honest part of the artistic process. The best plays are the most truthful, they say the things that we are afraid to say in real life, they give the audience courage, or catharsis, or they let you connect with someone that you would never come in contact with in your every day life.
Really learn and know the rules of writing. Comedic rules work for a reason, structure is there for a reason, and once you understand how those things work is when you can then deconstruct them. I kind of live by the Pixar Rules for Writing. I have found that playwriting is equally mathematical and creative. Don’t forget your characters’ objectives. If they are just fucking around for a page and nothing is deepening then go back to what they’re actually supposed to be doing. Don’t write what you think people want to read, or what you think people want to hear. Be specific, and get used to other people reading your work. Find actors who have the sensibilities that you are inclined to as a writer and let them interpret your work. Also work with actors that you don’t really like or don’t think are compatible to your work because they may open your words up in strange and wonderful ways. Read bad plays and see bad theater, because it is easier to see what you should improve upon than what to aspire to. Drink one coffee if you know what you want to write and need to bang it out. Drink a beer if you’re creatively stuck and need to ruminate.
More about Nathan
Nathan Ramos currently resides in New York City where he balances writing plays, acting, and teaching. Nathan is originally from Cleveland, OH and born to a Filipino Texan and a Korean immigrant. He holds a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. Ramos will receive a $5,000 prize.