Chautauqua Theater Company’s conservatory actors are used to playing make believe, but this weekend they will take their imitation to a new, rocking level.
With one notable exception, the cast of Airness is entirely made up of CTC conservatory actors. Chelsea Marcantel’s workshop production about the radical joy of air guitar opens this weekend with performances at 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 14, and 2:15 and 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 15, in Bratton Theater.
The play follows Nina, played by conservatory actor Jerrie Johnson, who serves as the audience surrogate as she enters the world of competitive air guitar.
Instead of rebuffing a potential threat, the air guitar enthusiasts embrace Nina with open arms and teach her what it takes to rock.
Johnson said that the friendships seen on stage reflect how the conservatory actors act outside of the theater.
“You have to build those connections outside as well, to have the truest version on stage,” she said. “I think the conservatory members have been so generous since day one that you can just see it.”
The play’s authenticity extends to its rules of competition, which are identical to air guitar’s judging criteria. Much like figure skating, contestants are judged on a 4.0 to 6.0 scale based on their stage presence, technical ability and “airness” which is how well they transcend imitation and make air guitar into an art form of its own.
Naturally, Airness features numerous classic rock hits by bands like Journey and Heart. Because air guitar thrives on crowd interaction, audiences are encouraged to clap and sing along to their favorite tunes.
As for the guitar solos, the conservatory members were trained firsthand by two-time air guitar international champion Matt Burns, who cameos as different announcers throughout the play. Known on stage by his persona “Airistotle,” Burns coached the conservatory actors’ routines and taught them about air guitar culture.
Burns said he was impressed by the actors’ ability to lean into the art form and not care about what they might look like while performing.
“All these guys are incredible actors. They could all skill Shakespeare if they felt like it,” he said. “Doing air guitar is unique because you’re going to look silly doing it and you are going to look a little out there, and so to drop your guard and accept the fact that you’re going to look silly, you’re going to look like you’re having the most fun.”
Conservatory actor David Rosenberg plays Mark “Facebender” Lender, an air guitarist who wears his heart on his sleeve. He said that he admires the way air guitarists share deep friendships despite living miles apart.
“They only see each other at these competitions because they all live in different parts of the country,” he said. “The way that Matt Burns talks about it, it’s just all these people supporting each other and being happy for each other. It couldn’t be less about winning. It’s just about joy and community and support and expression, and that’s awesome.”
Outside of rehearsal, the conservatory members live together and take classes. Director Joshua Kahan Brody said that the cast, much like the air guitar community, has become a supportive family.
“I think one of the things that a conservatory, especially at a place like Chautauqua, does is it eliminates, relatively speaking, competitiveness,” Brody said. “Being an actor in New York or LA where you’re constantly auditioning, it’s a scarcity economy where it’s a zero-sum game and everyone else’s gain is somehow your loss. Here, I think that these guys have created a community that doesn’t feel like that.”
Marcantel, who sat in on the rehearsal process and answered the actors’ questions about the play, said that this bond was helpful given the short window of time CTC had to put the show together.
“I like working with a conservatory or a company or a group that’s been together before I get there because I feel like then we jump to day 10 of rehearsal in terms of how well everybody knows each other,” Marcantel said. “It just saves us a lot of time because everyone is comfortable, everybody’s friends and everybody speaks the same language by the time we get involved.”
The show also pays homage to the air guitar community’s desire for world peace through the character Gabe “Golden Thunder” Partridge, played by conservatory actor Elijah Jones. He said that having fun was vital to the rehearsal process, and he hopes audiences will sense that on stage.
“Air guitar is about having fun, and so if you’re not having fun, the show will just fall flat. That’s what the air guitar community is built on. It’s about fun. It’s about peace. It’s about bringing people together.”
-Elijah Jones, Conservatory actor, Chautauqua Theater Company