Matt Burns first picked up the air guitar when he was 3 years old. Using his bed as a stage, Burns jumped around and rocked out on the imaginary instrument to songs by the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Years later, Burns developed the persona “Airistotle” for the competitive air guitar circuit, going on to compete in Oulu, Finland, to become the world champion in 2016 and again in 2017, thanks to his charismatic stage presence and signature moves like “churn the butter.”
“I like to look at it as controlled chaos,” Burns said. “It looks like I’m just flailing around, but it’s pretty tactical. I know where my limbs and my fingers are at all times. I like to consider Airistotle a mix between Freddie Mercury and Kel from ‘Kenan & Kel,’ when he would just go crazy and destroy a room or something like that, but with the presence and control of Freddie Mercury.”
Because of his expertise with the art form, Chautauqua Theater Company recruited Burns to coach the conservatory actors’ air guitar routines in Airness. The workshop production of Chelsea Marcantel’s play concludes its run with performances at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, July 28, and Sunday, July 29, in Bratton Theater.
On top of his many cameo appearances in the play, Burns also lent his knowledge of air guitar culture to costume designer Mary Eggers and sound designer Miles Polaski, advising them on how his peers dress and cut their tracks. Director Joshua Kahan Brody said Burns’ involvement was key to the production’s success.
“We’re sort of getting multiple bangs for our buck here with Matt. We put Matt in every scene we can possibly put him in,” Brady said. “We could not have done this without him because there isn’t enough time for us scheduled, so having this dude just come in and be sort of the air guitar director has been unbelievable.”
Burns was first introduced to the competitive air guitar world when a high school friend invited him over to watch “Air Guitar Nation,” a DVD he found in the Best Buy bargain bin.
“I came over and saw this documentary which chronicles America’s first year in the international air guitar circuit, and I was like, ‘This is the dumbest, stupidest, most gorgeous, beautiful performance art that I’ve ever seen,’ and I got hooked on it,” Burns said.
In 2008, Burns drove to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to compete in his first air guitar competition, having missed the New York qualifier due to wisdom teeth surgery. Airistotle’s rendition of “Dead!” by My Chemical Romance earned him the night’s top score alongside another newcomer named “Windhammer.”
“Two rookies tied for first, and then he ended up annihilating me in sudden-death air-guitar overtime,” Burns said. “I wasn’t ready for that big moment yet.”
A year later, Burns returned to Philadelphia for a shot at redemption. Because he was underage, Burns said he had to sneak into the bar where the competition took place.
“I showed up five hours early with a newspaper across my face,” Burns said. “When the bouncers changed shifts, I went into a bathroom and I hid in a stall for like three hours (waiting) for the venue to fill up.”
Since then, Burns said he has learned from other air guitarists like “Lt. Facemelter” and “Nordic Thunder” to sharpen his skills and propel him to the international stage. As his prize for becoming world champion, Burns won a trophy and a guitar — a real one, handcrafted by a Finnish luthier.
When a friend from Burns’ community theater days saw the casting call for the world premiere of Airness at the Humana Festival in 2017, he emailed playwright Chelsea Marcantel asking her to offer Burns an audition. Burns thought it might be fun to combine his loves for theater and air guitar, so he accepted Marcantel’s invitation, assuming it was for a small, student project.
“I had my fingers crossed that we would maybe have microphones in our production,” Burns said. “I go into the audition room, and I had never been in a professional audition space. It was like a movie moment where I look to the left and I look to the right and people are doing all these vocal warm ups.”
Burns said that given his background in “competitive make believe,” he made a conscious effort to “psych out” the other actors.
“I stood up, and I had my championship belt on me in my backpack, so I made a whole big thing of unzipping my backpack, and I whipped my belt out and put it on.”
The audition went well, and Burns left New York to workshop the play in Louisville, Kentucky.
CTC Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy saw the play’s world premiere at the Humana Festival and said she knew she wanted to bring Airness to Chautauqua — along with Burns.
CTC conservatory actor Elijah Jones, who plays “Golden Thunder,” said that Burns was a joy to have around, be it in the rehearsal room, backstage or outside of the theater.
“Matt is essentially a part of the conservatory at this point,” Jones said. “Every get-together, every gathering we have, Matt is there and he’s the life of the party.”
Burns said that the snapshot of the air guitar community shown on stage in Airness is “shockingly real to life.”
“The air guitar community is a wonderfully supportive group of individuals,” Burns said. “I’ve actively competed against people who’ve helped me make my song better the night before, and I think the spirit of that kind of comradery and that ‘group before oneself’ mentality really shines through in Chelsea Marcantel’s Airness.”
As the current world champion, Burns said he is excited to return to Finland to defend his title, yet he does not feel pressured to win.
“It’s cool because I’ve accomplished many things in my air guitar career. I did just about everything I set out to do,” Burns said. “Even my loftiest goals have kind of come true, so at this point for me, repeating would be sick because no one has ever won three world titles — ever. I’m one of four people and the only American to win two. It would be cool to win a third, but I’ve already tied the greatest who’ve ever done it, so I’m already pretty stoked.”
Regardless of what the judges think of his performance this year, Burns said he is considering taking a break from his competitive air guitar career to continue working in theater.
“Airness, fingers crossed that it gets picked up, and fingers crossed that I get to be involved with the production again,” Burns said. “If it does, then I would like to maybe focus a little bit more on acting and how to teach air guitar. I think I did a pretty good job at showing everybody the ins and outs of it. They all did a good job learning it, but I think I’d like to focus on how I could teach it a little bit better.”