About Chris Van Patten

Posts by Chris Van Patten:

Cobalt Studios – 7.25

So here I am laying in my bed, in a giant farm house along with 8 other scenic artists for 3 weeks of learning, painting, and overall just having a great time.

I am currently at Cobalt Scenic Studios. It is everything I could ask for and more.
I will do my best to make a post for each day I’m here but forgive me if some days have shorter posts – sometimes I procrastinate ( gasp).

So today is my official first day stepping in the studio. Yesterday I moved in to my own room in a farm house that can sleep up to 12 people!
My day began with a general discussion on what a scenic artist really was, venues you could find employment in, from backstage jobs.com to painting houses and commercials. Then we moved to the studio where I was blown away by the sheer numbers of supplies in stock. For example, every can of paint was rosebrand – a gallon would run you upwards of $70. I’m not trying to brag, just trying to give you the lay of the land. I was given a list of items a paint shop should have in stock, and what cobalt keeps in stock. The list went on for three pages.
Now you may be thinking I was in this highly monitored store room with white walls and locks on every door… But really it’s just a giant barn. And I couldn’t feel a y more at home. Everything may be organized neatly but all the labels are hand written, the shelves are either a conglomeration of your kitchen wares or hand made contraptions, there are silly pictures and decorations, the paint sinks are old bathtubs, and to top it all off there’s a cat named Winnie, who loves to say hi by rolling on her back.
Aside from the mixing and supply room I just described there is also a lounge filled with visual research, an office that maintains any backdrop rentals or commissions, and a huge studio. The studio is large enough to fit two 60×40 drops stapled on the floor.

You had me at farmhouse and barn/studio.

Cobalt is in a town called White Lake, basically the nearest Starbucks is an hour away. And I love it.

Aside from our tour of the facilities we began a lesson on cartooning, or on enlarging line drawings. Today we learned how to use a grid system. We also learned how to make soft good flats.

While we were working there was a graduate of Cobalt painting a drop of the Saringhetti. It’s just so much fun seeing something come to life as you step back. The artists name is Brian, and he just got accepted into the scenic painters union! No small feat at that!

I should note that I am learning under Rachel Keebler, Kimb Williamson, and Hannah Joy (a recent cobalt grad).

Prage Quadrennial Part 7 – My Personal Project

My personal project will take the form of an installation piece, incorporating puppets, or traveling puppet company.

As I was going through all the exhibits I found myself drawn to all the puppets and puppet imagery. The abstraction of the human form lends itself so well to theatre, one is able to create a character from scratch – without regards to an actors own body.

I am interested in bringing the viewers into a new world, totally immersed in the aesthetic and visual content to this new world. In here they will encounter the puppets, or inhabitants of this world.

This style of theatre and visual art occurred numerous times in the National Exhibition. I loved how the installations surrounding small works of art lent itself to creating a stronger dialogue between the artists and the viewers. The art was no longer behind a frame, or on a stage, instead you entered the world, you were there able to touch, smell, feel, and sometimes even taste the various elements of this created world.  When inside these active installations you felt a part of the piece. You were no longer a viewer, but an active participant.

This type of interactive, environmental theatre is what I am really interested in now, and I very much hope puppetry will come into my next project as an added element.

Prague Quadrennial Part 4 – Video of Six Acts Project


Here’s a documentary on my Six Acts Project, made by the media team at Scenofest 2011.

Prague Quadrennial Part 3 – Portfolio Discussion

The never ending question – What do I put in my portfolio?
At the Prague Quadrennial they exhibited various student and professional portfolios, and I took the time to go through them.
Originally I wanted to look through every single one, to figure out what a portfolio was and how I wanted to exhibit myself on paper, but as I started to go through them – it only took three portfolios to tell me everything I needed to know.
Here’s some advice from what I saw.
1. There are no rules, you don’t even have to listen to what I say. Make a portfolio that contains the information YOU value, not what you think other people want to see.
2. No matter what you do, label EVERYTHING, make it consistent and include your NAME.
3. Don’t use crazy colors in your backgrounds – you don’t want to take away from the photos and images that are your work.
4. Be neat and organized – have other people look at your portfolio when you think you’re complete and ask them if the order makes sense, good professors are worth their weight in gold when it comes to this.
5. Don’t have a portfolio that is massive – no one wants to lug that around or take the effort to wrestle with the pages, try and keep the size manageable, but not so small that it diminishes the power of your photos.
Now here comes the true advice – or more or less what I saw and wish to correct in the portfolio world forever.
What did I see in those first three portfolios? Well I saw pretty pictures and nothing more. I saw image after image, nicely cropped, labeled, mounted, and placed in order. All it showed me was that the designer it belonged to would make an excellent photo documentarian.
To be honest I was rather disappointed. THESE are professional portfolios? Picture albums? I probably flipped through at least 13 more portfolios before concluding that what I felt was missing from these portfolios was exactly what I had to put in mine. I saw maybe two portfolios that actually seemed complete to me. But as I said the majority of them were picture albums of production photos –nothing more. There were no renderings, no research images, no process, just product, and it bored me to tears.
I had approached the table eager, and ready to take hundreds of pictures, and quickly realized that there was only a handful of things on that table worth taking a picture of.

I see production photos and all I see is a pretty picture, worthless without the process that went behind it. How do I learn about our designs without taking into account the process behind them? Quite honestly I can’t. I want to see a beginning in order to appreciate an end.

In conclusion that is what I am going to do when I put together my portfolio this summer. I will include snippets of process work, research images, sketches, illustrating how my ideas evolved and became what is inside those production photos. Information that helps the photos mean something to their viewer, and makes me stand out from the sea of photo albums.
Don’t misunderstand me – do NOT make a scrap book. Do NOT make a collaged mess of information that no one can digest. But for every 8×10 production photo have at least 2 smaller images that back them up or inform the viewer where they came from, so they begin to understand you.

Prague Quadrennial Part 2 – International Exhibition

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have just returned to Buffalo from the Prague Quadrennial. Aside from my Six Acts performance, there was also the International Exhibition of Scenography which I attended once my performance was complete.
The exhibition consists of two sections, the student section, and the professional section. Each section then has multiple exhibits classified by country.
The exhibiton resided on the entire main floor of Pragues Veletrizni Palac – an art museum in Prague, as well as portions of 3 other floors.
To be honest, I found it extremely overwhelming. There was so much to see and do all at once, and I was bombarded with so much visual imagery it made my head spin. I began to take pictures of literally everything I found interesting so that I could look at them later to actually digest all the information. I had to go through the exhibition in 2 hour chunks. If I was there for more than 2 hours I began to enter a daze in which I could no longer process any of the visual information in front of me.
On the first day I went straight to the student exhibits, since I had a participation activity planned for me at the USA Student exhibit. At the USA exhibit I was paired up with a girl named Megan from Carnegie Mellon. Megan and I were given a short poem by Langston Hughes, and were told to create. We ended up making a “dream book” an object mentioned in the poem that captured our attention. This collaborative process was also enjoyable. This time there was text and given circumstances to take into account.

After that I was able to go through about 15 more student exhibits before I reached my max for the day.
The next day I was able to finish going through the rest of the student exhibits on another floor, as well as begin going through all the professional exhibits.
The entire exhibition floor varied from one extreme to another. There were no set guidelines for a country to present and I don’t think I would have wanted it any other way. However this great discrepancy in presentation styles definitely through my nearly-fried brain through a loop.
Aside from sharing all my pictures with you I really can’t go through every single exhibit and describe what each country is doing in the realm of scenography and what that means to me. To be honest I’m not even sure yet. It’s been over a week since I was in the exhibition floor and I’m still trying to comb out my thoughts.
What I can tell you is what I noticed, and that is the fact that visual art and theatre are one in the same. Theatre just has an added element of motion, which makes all the difference.
Many exhibitions were installations, or interactive spaces that allowed the viewer to explore and create. Some were pictures, some had model boxes, many were a collage of a plethora of artifacts and designs, very few had live performances, many had electronic display boards that moved to a new image every 3 to 5 seconds, and most were trying to express what scenography meant to them.
When trying to digest all this content, you begin to realize how important the presentation of the content truly is. I would come to exhibits and be somewhat jaded by the presentation format, and thus be less inclined to stay at the exhibit to view the content – no matter how marvelous or magical it may be. I realized this early on, probably after the first 5 exhibits I went into. Presentation was everything.
A good presentation would make mediocre designs look amazing, and the opposite was true as well.
I found it shocking how few really incorporated live performance into their display. While it is understandable that one cannot afford to bring entire acting troupes from one’s home country to display a taste of “national theatre” it is still surprising since everything became a piece of visual art rather than a piece of moving narrative, or theatre. I would go into exhibits and treat it as an installation with a collage of visual art inside. Even the few bursts of live performance that was on display at the exhibition could be considered performance art. Some countries seemed to be exhibiting art rather than theatre – as there were only posed photographs on display – sometimes not even involved in theatre.
Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition floor, I don’t really care if theatre is presented as visual art or not, to be honest I don’t think there should be such a distinct mental divide between the two. I think they are the same.
The only difference being the way they’re presented.

Prague Quadrennial Part 1 – Six Acts

Greetings UB, I have just arrived back from Europe with more information that I could possibly digest in the two weeks I was there, so I’ll do my best to break it down here.

The purpose of my trip was to attend the Prague Quadrennial, the International Competitive Exhibition of Scenography, as well as participate in Six Acts, a collaboration of international students to produce a site specific performance within the City or Prague.
For my Six Acts project I was working with a group of 20 students under the direction of Pavel Štourač, the director of Divadlo Continuo – a Czech based theatre troupe. Our performance took place in the Franciscan Garden of Prague, on June 18th, and the first day we met was June 14th.

On the morning of June 14th I was filled with excitement to meet my group mates, and discover the narrative of our performance. I was immediately surprised by how many people were part of our performance, 20 students, 1 director, and two assistant directors, and we all came from different places, Belgium, Serbia, Lithuania, Hong Kong, Portugal, United Kingdoms, Russia, United States, Canada, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.

Now putting together a show in 5 days is difficult no matter how you look at it, putting together a show in 5 days where there are over 20 people imputing their ideas and creations is even more difficult. There were 20 student scenographers, sitting in the garden, all with their own idea of how the performance could unfold, and Pavel listened to all of them.

After we took in the performance site we moved to DAMU, Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts, where we had our own rehearsal hall that we turned into our workshop – and it was filled with paper.

Everything we made for the performance was to be made out of paper, using bamboo for support when needed. Now don’t get me wrong – there were over 20 different types of paper, each with their own unique qualities, and we were able to make beautiful creations.

After relocating to our workshop, we immediately began creating from the various ideas we shared in groups of 4 or 5. After about one to two hours of working with the material and creating something we could reconvene for critique, where the group members would perform the gesture associated with that character or extension of the body. During the critique Pavel would work with the students to have them push their creation in a way that was not expected, or intended. He would work with movement and timing, and gesture, each time discovering something new about the creation and expanding the possibilities that object could have on the performance.

For the next few days we worked like this. Everyone would express and create different ideas that related to the garden, Pavel would pick a handful to be created and we would critique. We were not writing a narrative, there was not a group of people labeled performers, nor a group labeled costume designers, lighting designers, etc. We were all working together, as a group to stimulate new ideas and possibilities, and working with paper.

When the performance came nearer Pavel took time to narrow down which creations he wanted to see again, and what he hoped to use in the performance. Following this we had a session in which we each had to create a puppet. This specificity was interesting to me, as previously we were all working on a different type of prop.

Making paper puppets became one of the most influential critiques of the whole week. We had paper bags, turned into faces before our eyes, and became animated as soon as they came into contact with the human body. It was just the magical moment we needed to move our production forward.

On the day it was time to move back to the garden, we had a movement lesson. We cleaned the floor clear of all the paper debris that had been accumulating over the past few days, and began walking around barefoot. It started as an exercise in which we were to increase our awareness of others in movement, and try not to collide. Then we had to feel with our bodies, as we walked backwards, where there was movement behind us – in order to avoid colliding. Soon the exercise evolved into a type of game, where we began to group together, choosing to follow another, or mimic someone in the room, and then change course. This movement lesson primed us all for the performance that was to come. Making us aware of our body movement, and thus how our body would move differently in character.

Back in the garden, we quickly began to make all the characters and puppets that Pavel wanted to use in the performance. We all worked together to get each one completed. Starting out mostly in groups based on which “scenes” we were in, and as the day went on, becoming a single unit, with everyone helping those in need as soon as another problem was solved.

The scene I chose to focus my energy on was one that stemmed from the idea of a woman in a hat, whose hat then melted as she entered a fountain and would be covered in water. While this scene did not necessitate any difficult structures, or a large number of pieces, it posed a posed a problem with rehearsal. No matter how many hats I made each one would disintegrate in a different way. If I were to go back in time and start my construction process over again, I would have made at least 5 hats to rehearse with, as it was our time crunch only allowed me to make two.

My character’s through-line developed as my designs developed. Starting with an elaborate paper hat, and then a white dress, which soon developed to have a longer and longer train. Before I knew it, my character was becoming a lone bride, one who was left in the garden. She turns to the nearby fountain to rid herself of the bridal costume, and the memory of her love. Walking away into the night (our performance started at 9pm).

Each scene developed this way, extremely malleable, and in no way fixed to one idea. Some scenes were added or cut as needed. There was no strict guidelines to follow, it was a living creation.

The performance developed into a series of vignettes, a choreographed site specific performance that traveled throughout the garden. Besides my water bride, there were monks, puppet heads, books, flowers, machines, birds, and embryos, all made out of paper. It proved to be a magical night, one that I will never forget.

It was the first true collaborative process I was involved in, where everyone had a part in every step of the process, from the beginning to end, and it was also the first time I had worked with so many scenographers, all from different backgrounds bringing their ideas to the table. I was shocked at how over twenty different minds came together so perfectly to create something as beautiful as what happened in the garden that night.

Audience members were brought into a another world of paper creatures, and moved through the space from scene to scene, discovering something new each time.

Friday 11th, 2011 USITT Wireless Dimming

Today was the day. I was finally going to be attending my session on wireless dimming. While this session was in the evening I had no time to waste. So I spent my morning exploring the Expo some more. During my exploration I discovered two different sources for wireless dimming products other than RC4 wireless dimming.

The first was the SHoW DMX product from City Theatrical a

nd the second was the W-DMX product from Wireless Solution Sweden AB. While this was very interesting and cool to see what else is out there, as I said before these products were made for much bigger uses than what I needed them for as well as these are much more expensive than the RC4.

When I attended my session I found that the dimming and technology he was planning to talk about that was more specified to motion control rather than for dimming lights. Due to the fact the audience was fairly small he actually asked us what we wanted to learn about and the crowd wanted to know about dimming lights which saved my life.

The most important thing he talked about during his presentation was about batteries which was very interesting to me and very important to know about for wireless dimming.


  • Lead Acid Batteries

o   Do not go below 10 ½ volts of power

§  When recharged the battery will have a

lower life span.

§  If run down to dead it will only recharge to 80 percent of it’s original power. Each time it is used till dead it will only recharge to 80 percent of the outstanding power.

§  Wireless dimmer companies allow the batteries to be drained completely rather than having them shut off at the right voltage because if they were shut off the batteries may not complete its use in the show.

o   It likes to be used very little, but be charged a lot.

§  It is necessary to be very diligent at checking batteries making sure they are charged well and correctly.

§  If not taken care of it will become costly to replace numerous batteries.

§  For cost effectiveness UB Department of Theatre and Dance should invest in a versatile battery charger.

  • NiCad and Nickel Metal Hydride batteries

o   Memory effect

§  It is said that some batteries have an effect that if the battery is only used a little bit before being attached to a charger consistently, the battery will remember how its used and soon if you try to use the battery it will start dying a lot earlier than it should.

§  The solution to the memory effect is to use these batteries until they are completely dead so you are able to keep the full use.


The last thing I did on Friday was attend Cirque Du Soleil’s new touring show “Totem”. It was my first Cirque show and it was completely amazing. The automation was fantastic and the lighting was amazing especially with its combined and complemented looks with the projections. While on the tech side of the show I was truly amazed but for me never seeing anything like this in real life the performance is what ble

w me away and completely absorbed me.

One thing I did not miss on the tech side of the show was when wireless dimming was used in a way I didn’t think was possible. During the show there is a moment where this man is juggling these balls that are lighting up and changing colors. At first I thought that maybe the LED’s in the balls are preprogrammed to change as they do but after speaking with the people at the Cirque Du Soleil booth at the Stage Expo, they said that the balls are actually being controlled with wireless dimming.

Wireless Juggling Balls


Thursday 10th, 2011 USITT Stage Expo

On Thursday the Stage Expo was opened and everyone flocked to the main conference floor to explore the maze of booths. The booths were run by theatre companies looking for new employees, theatre universities looking for potential new students and as well as technology companies looking to sell their products.

When I went on to the Expo floor the first thing I did was find the RC4 wireless dimming booth because in my preliminary research had led me to this company for three reasons.

1.       The product they offer seemed to be the most versatile in how it can be used on stage because it is so small it has many prop applications.

2.       The product they offered was cheaper than that what other wireless companies were offering, which were wireless dimming systems for larger size use as well as more expensive.

3.       Lastly the owner of the RC4 wireless dimming booth was the person that was presenting and running the session on wireless dimming there at the conference.

In speaking with the president of the company, James Smith, I learned some of the basics of how wireless dimming works in the basic stages and that it is a whole lot simpler than people may think. He showed me a few examples of his technology at work. He said if I still have questions or was confused about anything I could go to the website and there are videos there that take you through the basic process of how RC4 wireless dimming works.

The  main process is:

1.       Connect a Wireless DMX Transmitter to the board.

2.       The signal will be sent to the receiver(s).

3.       The receiver is connected with DMX cable to the dimmer ( where it can be further connected to other dimmers)

4.       The dimmer is connected to the light as well as connected to a power source (possibly a battery).

The only difference is that it seems that RC4 tech has a dimmer that receives the wireless signal on it own.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the Stage Expo, looking at all the cool new stuff, getting free swag and making new vital connections.

Wednesday 9th, 2011 USITT Conference

Upon arrival to Charlotte NC we checked into our hotel across the street from the convention center and then went straight to the conference to get checked in and to start attending sessions. I was very excited this day because that afternoon was the when my main session was meant to happen.

The session was on the use of wireless dimming and how it worked. I was very excited because this topic is relevant and possibly the only solution to an issue I am having on my university’s production of Sideman. We need to provide a power source to a turn table that only goes one way while still being able to control the power from the board as well as not letting any cables be visible.

The first session I attended ended up being a waste of my time. The session was called “Using Microcontrollers in Production: the little chip that can solve big problems”. It was all about how using microcontrollers can be very helpful and how cheap they are and how you can use them in automation, which is all true. For my purposes of researching wireless dimming it was not very helpful.

In the afternoon I went to the room for my session on wireless dimming and found that it had been postponed until Friday.

Friday March 10th, 2011-Ease on down the road

I realized, I completely forgot to mention the Expo in the last post. I’ll try to fit that in at the end of this one.

Friday came, and I had no sessions to really attend. I decided to spend my time exploring Charlotte. I set off with my iPod blasting music for the show im designing/teching over the summer-The Wiz-and took in the sites. I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was walking, or where I was heading. I knew roughly what direction the hotel was in in relation to where I was, so I decided I was safe. While walking, I managed to get some inspiration for the show.

 I previously had designed a set that was much more childlike. Without going too far into the details, it was a very large toybox. But while exploring Charlotte, I started developing new ideas. I wanted something that seemed more futuristic, more industrial, but clean feeling; blues, whites, silvers.  Oz is supposed to be the antithesis of Kansas, or wherever Dorothy decides she is from today. Kansas needs to be hot, oppressive, dirty.

Below are a few pieces of inspiration I found while on my journey.

Tree on Trade Street

 -I loved the white blossoms. And I’m currently toying with the idea of a distorted tree painted blue, with silver accents, and white blossoms to be included in the set.

Structure I found outside Mimosa Grill

Different view of structure outside Mimosa Grill

While I was heading back to the hotel, I found this. I fell in love with the look of it almost instantly. I want my set to replicate that (Look, I’m stealin’ ideas. Thanks, Beg, Borrow, Steal). I still have to figure out exact dimensions, but I love the idea of a two level set that would take up much of the stage, with stairs leading down.  It would be very multi-purpose, and since I seem to lack a good crew every year, I won’t need to stress over shifting scenery.