Performing Arts

James Dennen

Virtual Residency

A computer animated rodent in sweatshirt seems to dance with a glove-wearing spotted frog in a virtual environment with two chairs and a background screen with three photos of real actors making similar gestures

Theater artist James Dennen’s current residency at the Wex introduces audiences to his multiyear experiment in improvised live performance within the context of—and in tension with—virtual reality and digital life onscreen.

Beginning with a prerecorded artist talk created in virtual reality in January 2022, the residency will offer further explorations of this digital expansion of Dennen’s work with improvisation, including an ensemble play that includes mixed intelligences (both artificial and human) and screen-based inquiries into the intersection between critical theory and improvised dance.

James Dennen’s improvised theater uses a rigorous, game-based understanding of human behavior in order to call into question our existing social structures and to spontaneously imagine new ways of being together. In the wake of shattering changes that have beset live performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dennen and his collaborators—Lauren Katz and Joey Slotnick—have turned to virtual reality (VR) as a means of continuing with their experimentation with scenic improvisation. Despite restricted gathering and travel during COVID, in VR they have found not only remarkable opportunities for physicality and embodiment, but also newly relevant modes of inquiry.

By rehearsing, performing, and spectating as avatars in a rendered virtual environment, Dennen and his collaborators explore proximity, intimacy, and the various promises that live performance makes. The surprise amid the shutdown of ordinary human contact has been the discovery of technology that, when paired with the uniquely generative and speculative nature of improvisation, begins to provide an accessible and powerful engine capable of conceiving, producing, and animating work simultaneously in real time.

Marriage: a Work in Progress, adapted for Virtual Reality (James Dennen, 2021).
Lauren Katz (left, in background) and Joey Slotnick. Photo: Christian Faur.

Ohio Arts Council