For the past week, Chautauquans who enter Bratton Theater have been greeted by a smorgasbord of black and white posters depicting every famous face imaginable. From Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol to Julie Andrews, Nelson Mandela and Dolly Parton, scenic designer William Boles said the diversity shown on the Airness set’s back wall is representative of air guitar’s universal appeal.
Just as air guitarists work together to polish their routines, Boles said that the set’s construction was a collaborative endeavor. Chautauqua Theater Company’s workshop production of Airness continues its run with a performance at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 26, in Bratton.
The play follows a group of air guitarists who travel across the United States to play their imaginary instruments to the soundtrack of classic rock hits. Boles said he designed the set using images from dive bars across the country.
“In some ways, it’s like a collage of different spaces all in one location,” he said.
Guest artist Matt Burns, the current international air guitar champion who cameos as various bartenders throughout the play, swaps out letters on the bar’s marquee to show when the location changes between Staten Island, San Diego, Boston and Chicago.
While much of Boles’ original design can be seen on Bratton’s stage, some elements were changed during the tech process to make it easier for the actors to get around.
“We started off with three doors in the design from the beginning of rehearsal, and now we only have one,” Boles said. “We replaced one with a beaded curtain because that’s more fun, and then we ended up ditching the entrance door, so it’s easy to go in and out now.”
Scattered across the bar are pop culture references and CTC in-jokes, including a golden rabbit figurine that invokes CTC’s previous production, An Octoroon, and the “Hyla Sour,” a fictitious drink special named for properties master Hyla Sue Stellhorn.
Before the summer started, Stellhorn scoured flea markets and antique stores for “bar signage.” She also got help from a friend in Ripley, New York who owns a bar called Plummer’s Tavern.
“They totally hooked us up,” Stellhorn said. “They came up from the basement with a Bud Light sign, with Budweiser signs and all these different beer signs. They also saved some liquor bottles for us.”
When it came time to dress the set, Stellhorn said that the props crew sorted the signs into bins based on whether they can light up, so that decorations were evenly distributed.
“I feel kind of bad that (the scene painters) even painted some of the walls because there’s so much stuff on them. You really can’t even see that there is paint underneath.”
-Hyla Sue Stellhorn, Properties master, Chautauqua Theater Company
To fill in any gaps, the props team covered the walls with old notices, flyers and junk mail, along with fake dollar bills signed by the Airness cast and crew.
“I cleaned off everybody’s bulletin board and saved anything that had an interesting graphic or a quirky note,” Stellhorn said. “We found a template online where you can put anybody’s face on a dollar. We did a bar show a years ago that (CTC Artistic Director) Andrew Borba directed and we made ‘Borba Bucks’ that have Andrew’s face on them, so this year we did ‘Brody Bucks,’ which have director Josh Brody’s face on them.”
In several scenes, the script calls for air guitarists to dip behind the bar counter to pour themselves a drink. In addition to the bottles of alcohol that line the shelves, the props team installed a working tap.
“We thought it might be a good opportunity to invest in a kegerator, which we’ve talked about for a number of years but couldn’t justify buying,” Stellhorn said. “This seemed like a perfect show for that because it didn’t take very long to make all the air guitars, so we had some extra time and a little extra money.”
Because the state of New York does not sell nonalcoholic beer, Stellhorn said that assistant properties master Ivy Thomas looked into soft drinks, making many visits to a brewing supply store in Lakewood called Straight Fermentations that loaned CTC new hoses and a CO2 tank. The “beer” the actors drink on stage is actually a watered-down, cream soda solution.
“We’re still having problems with the carbonation level, but we just troubleshoot it day by day,” Stellhorn said.
Although only one lever is actually functional, props intern Cooper Nickels built others to make the contraption look more realistic from afar.
“It’s almost like a hat that sits over the working tap that has a bunch of faux taps coming off of it,” Stellhorn said.
Near the end of each show, the dive bar breaks apart into four units that recede to the back of the stage, thus expanding the actors’ performance space. Boles said this effect shows the power of the characters’ imaginations to transform a tiny bar into a full concert venue.
“It was inspired by that feeling that air guitar performers have when they’re in those small spaces, but when they unlock that airness in them and are able to feel like they’re a rock star,” he said. “That’s where the idea of the whole space opening up came from.”