Beauty in Motion

by LIsa Mulcahy
in Profile

A film frame from Nadia RodenVirtuoso artist Nadia Roden brings an innovative technique to scenic design

Nadia Roden’s skills as a multimedia artist have established her as one of the theatre’s most exciting, fresh talents. The New York City-based Roden has created a vivid technique for backdrop and drapery projections she refers to as “moving paintings”—unique animated depictions of dreamlike images she’s created that have enhanced productions at the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Guthrie. The highly original and emotionally resonant artwork Roden creates is not only a creative achievement, it’s a cutting-edge technical accomplishment that involves the melding of theatrical backdrop construction with lighting and projection in a fresh, motion-specific way. 

Nadia RodenPutting Creativity Into Motion

Roden grew up in London, where her instincts as a visual artist were encouraged from the start. “When I was a child, my mother created huge abstract paintings,” she recalls. “Our house was filled with them, and they added vibrancy to our lives. My mother taught me to paint with oils when I was very young.” Her mother also sparked Roden’s keen interest in theatre from a young age. “We made a little wooden theatre together, and painted removable backdrops—one was of the woods near our house. I remember being mesmerized!” she continues. “I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to be an artist; I was a bit of a rebel, and I loved the freedom art offered to create one’s own world. I also went to a very progressive school in London, which really encouraged students to explore their own interests.”

Roden eventually received a BFA in fine art painting from Camberwall College of Arts in London, then earned an MA in textile design from Central Saint Martins. She subsequently moved to the U.S. to study at NYU, and started working in the theatre as soon as she could. “A friend asked me to help him paint scenery for a show in the East Village, and then I took a tour backstage at the Metropolitan Opera,” she recalls. “I fell in love with the operatic stage. I thought it would be so cool to create backdrops that actors could interact with, and that could help transport the audience.” 

Roden had already been painting murals all over the city—”massive walls and ceilings, many in restaurants,” she explains. “I love creating environments and transporting people in that way.” And she started thinking about a new technique that would allow her to express herself as she did with her mural work, but in a distinct and fluid theatrical language. She conceived the idea of “moving paintings” after seeing a number of animated French films from the early 1900s specifically. “I found these films, by Georges Méliès and Émile Cohl, so magical and full of charm,” she says. “It got me thinking about trying to do the same with paintings, to make them come alive.” She developed her technique by painting images directly on to 16 mm film—“I animate frame by frame by hand, totally old school,” Roden explains—and then projecting the film. “I was so excited by the results, there was no stopping me!” she enthuses. “I experimented with cut-outs and painting on glass, filming each step. Anything seemed possible—life is always in flux, always moving, and each painted ‘frame’ captured that fleeting moment.”

Creating a Dramatic Experience

Roden’s first major opportunity to put her “moving paintings” into a stage format happened in 2004, at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Acclaimed director Marion McClinton incorporated Roden’s concept into his production of Regina Taylor’s play Drowning Crow, which is based on Chekov’s The Seagull, and updated to express the concerns of a group of African-American artists. The production’s esteemed cast included Alfre Woodard and Anthony Mackie. 

Drowning Crow began as a formidable prospect for Roden. “I was asked to animate what was going on inside a teenager’s head as he committed suicide, and this would be projected onto a backdrop,” she says. “I was worried I would offend people with the imagery. I spent a long time researching, then discussed my ideas with the great theatrical projectionist Wendall Harrington, with whom I was working on the play. Wendall gave me a box of black crow feathers for inspiration. We talked about the relationships we had with our own mothers (which is connected to the play), and about flying crows, and metamorphosis. Wendall was very inspiring, and encouraged me to be bold, frightening and provocative. I built a textural collage, creating the film in-camera over a few days; I improvised, and allowed things to happen. The results were very powerful.” 

Roden’s work on Drowning Crow was very well received. She then turned her talents to creating moving paintings to the comic opera Naked Revolution at the Guthrie Theatre Lab in Minneapolis. “My favorite job for the theatre,” she enthuses. “David Soldier and Maita DiNiscemi had completed the musical score and libretto—they loved the idea of an animated backdrop, and let me fly with it. The opera is edgy and brilliant; it’s a satire about Lenin, Washington, Marcel Duchamp and Isadora Duncan meeting up at the arch in Washington Square Park. It’s partly based on a dream. There’s a scene where the actress playing Isadora dances with herself as a line drawing that’s magical.”

In terms of her step-by-step process for Naked Revolution, “I used a mix of cut-outs, painting on glass, watercolors and frame-by-frame drawings, and shot the hour-long animation on 16mm film, perfectly timed to the score,” Roden elaborates. “An art collector from Boston actually bought the whole animation, and now projects it into a box on his piano! It was an ambitious undertaking—and I loved the challenge!” Roden has also created an “opera in a box” herself, this time creating a production of moving painting animation for the Kitchen Theatre in New York.

A watercolor study of a project for The Metropolitan Opera, “The Met Comes Out at Night,” for sale at the Met Opera shop.Opening Up New Possibilities

With a scenic design technique as open-ended and fluid as Roden’s, moving paintings could truly be applied anywhere, to a huge range of productions. Roden finds this extremely exciting. “I’d love to create abstract animated backdrops for dance and for live musical pieces,” she says. “I feel that music can interact so beautifully with line and color.” Further melding soft goods into her theatrical design work, Roden also runs a textile design business, and creates scarves used in productions at the Metropolitan Opera. Roden’s skill continues to garner great acclaim—she’s a recipient of the prestigious Tom Phillips Drawing Award, among other accolades, and has published a book of her work as well. The melding of different forms of art informs the designs Roden creates—and she trusts that her imagination is her very best resource. “Even though I go in many directions, in different idioms, happily, all my ideas come from the same place,” she sums up. “I love having the freedom to constantly dream up new ideas—and to see them realized.”