Now Performing Arts | Interdisciplinary

James Dennen and Molly Shanahan

Critical Theory 1

Virtual | Artist Residency | Online Premiere

The second addition to his virtual residency, James Dennen’s Critical Theory 1 explores real-time collaboration in virtual reality through an interdisciplinary improvisation.

Theater artist and director James Dennen and choreographer and dancer Molly Shanahan were devising Critical Theory as a live performance piece when COVID-19 began. As the pandemic put a hold on performing in person, the work was rerouted and adapted for the virtual theater where Dennen’s recent experiments (such as the Wexner Center–supported Anti-gravity Donuts) have taken shape.

The Critical Theory series explores what happens when creative collaboration turns digital, performance is mediated by motion capture, and the boundaries between text, theater, and dance are tested in virtual environments. This 12-minute video documents Critical Theory 1, the first of the series, which plays as a continuous loop for visitors to the virtual theater. Critical Theory anticipates a revolution in art making and machinery, which we already see taking place within the furor around artificial intelligence and its sudden availability to the public. The piece playfully engages theory-focused prose by noted sociologist Pierre Bourdieu as an improbable stimulus for exquisitely flexible improvised movement.

Critical Theory 1, courtesy of the artist.

James Dennen, Christian Faur, Molly Shanahan, Michael "Blakk Sun" Powell
Like Leaves. Like Carrots. (work in progress)
Fri, June 2–Sat, June 3 | 7:00 PM
Performance Space

On June 2 and 3, Dennen, along with award-winning collaborators—visual artist Christian Faur, choreographer Molly Shanahan, and writer and spoken word artist Michael "Blakk Sun" Powell—will present a work in progress of their upcoming piece, Like Leaves. Like Carrots., an experimental, improvisational response to Samuel Beckett’s absurdist tragicomedy, Waiting for Godot. Expanding upon systems developed by Dennen while in residence at the Wexner Center, this live performance event—staged in mixed (virtual and actual) realities with interference from artificial intelligence—takes up Beckett’s apocalyptic desolation and hope as a search for human horizons at the frontier of digital performance technology.

Related Material

More about the artist and project

James Dennen chevron-down chevron-up

James Dennen has worked in venues and festivals across the US and abroad. He was the founding director of the nationally acclaimed company ED, whose experiments in improvisation—seen at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass in Chicago, among other spaces—explore and expand the limits of presence in the theater. On video, Dennen’s experimental work with live performance, improvisational techniques in narrative development, and documentaries earned a New Television Award through the Center for New Television funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. His scholarly work on improvisational theory and practice has been published in Drama Review and the New England Theatre Journal. Dennen has taught courses on performance theory and practice, acting, directing, devising, dramatic literature, improvisation, documentary filmmaking, expository writing, and public speaking at Harvard and Brown Universities, Kenyon College, and Denison University, where he joined the faculty in 2017.

Project credits and acknowledgements chevron-down chevron-up

Director and Reader: James Dennen 
Concept: Molly Shanahan and James Dennen 
Movement: Molly Shanahan 
Original Music: ETHEL 
Producer: Lane Czaplinski 
Virtual Theater Designer and Editor: Christian Faur 
Motion Capture, Avatar Design, and 3D Animation: UCSIM Center for Simulations & Virtual Environments Research (Chris Collins, Associate Director, Research Technologies; Eric Camper, Computer and Info Analyst; Chris Brady, Software Developer; Mae Seay, Program Manager) 
Audio Mix: Florence Barrau-Adams

Text excerpt: from “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods” in The Field of Cultural Production by Pierre Bourdieu (Columbia University Press, 1993)

Special thanks to Anastasia Congdon, Arloni Melini, Cindi Turnbull

Critical Theory 1 was commissioned and supported by a virtual residency at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Additional support was provided by the UCSIM Center for Simulations & Virtual Environments Research, Denison University Research Foundation, the Cynthia Ann Turnbull Charitable Foundation, and Parnassus Performance Laboratory.

Doris Duke Charitable Foundation 

Greater Columbus Arts Council 
The Wexner Family 
National Endowment for the Arts 
Ohio Arts Council 
L Brands Foundation 
The Columbus Foundation 
Nationwide Foundation 
Institute of Museum and Library Services 
Vorys, Sater, Seymour, and Pease 

Mike and Paige Crane 
Axium Packaging 
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams 
President Kristina M. Johnson and Mrs. Veronica Meinhard 
Nancy Kramer 
Larry and Donna James 
Lisa Barton 
Johanna DeStefano 
Jones Day 
Alex and Renée Shumate 


Now Performing Arts

James Dennen and Molly Shanahan