Behind the scenes: ‘Airness’ booth and backstage crew make work look like play, rocking out in the wings

From left, Chautauqua Theater Company conservatory actors Jake Lozano, David Rosenberg, James Smart and Elijah Jones prepare to return onstage during intermission of “Airness” July 19 in Bratton Theater.

The guitars on stage may be imaginary, but Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of Airness has plenty of props for assistant stage manager Mara Westerling Morris to track down before every performance. With help from production assistant Emily Hambridge and run crew member Haley Dunlavey, Morris makes sure that every beer bottle and confetti cup is accounted for.

“It’s our little safety net,” she said. “The three of us check each other’s work.”

Around their necks are headsets that let them to communicate with stage manager Bonnie Brady. From her perch in Bratton Theater’s booth, Brady calls every cue and makes sure each show runs smoothly — or at least appears to for the audience.

A CTC veteran, Brady said that Airness has been one of her favorite plays to stage manage in her 10 years with the company, due in large part to the play’s classic rock soundtrack.

“I don’t always get the fun one,” she said. “At least with Detroit (’67) we had some fun Motown going on, but this is my zone here.”

Airness tells the story of a group of air guitarists as they travel the country to hone their silly craft. CTC’s workshop production continues its run with a performance at 4 p.m. Friday, July 27, in Bratton, with a talkback after the show on the porch.

Given the play’s many musical numbers,Brady has over 400 lighting cues to execute during each show, along with another 400 for sound.

“There’s plenty to do,” said lightboard operator Mark Dulac. “They do their routines intermittent with dialogue so the whole structure is kind of like a musical.”

Although the show is a lot of work backstage, Morris and Hambridge said they have a lot of fun on the job.

“It’s one of those shows that’s a joy to run,” Hambridge said.

“Plus the music is amazing, so how could you not have fun doing it and singing along?” Morris said. “I will be sad when this one’s over, for sure.”

Tuning the guitars

Although her character, Nina O’Neil, is the last air guitarist to join the group, conservatory actor Jerrie Johnson is the first performer to sign in before the 2:15 p.m. matinee Thursday, July 19. She is soon joined by conservatory actors Elijah Jones, James Smart and David Rosenberg, who take to the stage to practice their air guitar solos, a pre-show warmup ritual.

Using his tablet, soundboard operator William Lowe plays a Michael Jackson medley over the speakers, then The Ramones’ “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” and finally Queen’s “Somebody to Love” for the actors’ respective routines.

At 1:50 p.m., Brady summons everyone to the stage for a brief meeting. First, CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba gives a pep talk and hints that Chautauqua President Michael E. Hill may be in the crowd for the evening performance. Afterword, Brady reminds the actors and crew that they have a photo call on Friday and that a reporter from The Chautauquan Daily will be joining them backstage as a fly on the wall for the show’s second act.

At the meeting’s end, the actors ask Lowe to play a song to help them get pumped up. He obliges and cues up a slow jam, which prompts the actors to whip out their air guitars. The song is awkward, as reflected by the actors’ scrunched faces.

“That was the seduction song of the day,” says Matt Burns, the current world champion of air guitar who served as the actors’ coach and makes cameo appearances throughout the show.

Sensing the awkwardness, Lowe changes the song to “We Are the Champions,” much to the performers’ delight. As the cast members wildly play their air guitars, Brady signals for conservatory actor Octavia Chavez-Richmond to return to the dressing room to apply her makeup and put in her hair extensions for her character, “Cannibal Queen.”

When the song ends, the rest of the cast scuttles off stage and Brady climbs up the ladder to the booth. Once inside, she sits on a swivel chair that is too short for her, forcing her to stand on her toes if she wants to see the stage out her window. Because of this, she relies on a monochrome television monitor to see what is happening down below.

Brady puts on her headset and checks in with Morris backstage. In between small talk with Dulac and Lowe, the stage manager juggles two other conversations: one with house manager Alexis Webb via walkie-talkie and another with a mechanic over the phone, who tells Brady that the brakes on her car are fixed.

“I’m going to call places, but please don’t have Octavia and Erin freak out,” she says to Morris and the backstage crew. Brady then switches channels so that the performers can hear, too. “If everybody’s ready; stand by and let’s have a kickass show.”

As “D Vicious,” conservatory actor Jake Ryan Lozano opens the show with Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy-Train.” Chavez-Richmond is in place, complete with hair extensions and a crown of bones, which allows Brady to shift her focus to the first air guitar solo’s many sound and lighting changes.

“Lights go. Lights go. Lights go. Light 23 go,” she says, ring off each cue in rapid succession. “Lights go. Lights go. Lights 29 go. Lights 31 go. Lights go.”

When “Crazy-Train” ends, Brady sits back and listens to the first scene, reading along in her script as the actors deliver their lines. She writes notes in the margins based on how the audience reacts that will later go into her post-show report.

Although Brady has seen the show many times, she still laughs when Johnson, as Nina, announces her song choice: “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Smart’s “Shreddy Eddy” recoils and tells Nina that “Journey is for stepmoms and frat boys.”

“Has David always done a spit take at that moment?” Brady asks into her headset. The answer to her question makes her laugh again. “That explains the puddles on the bar you guys talk about.”

Watching from the wings

During intermission, Morris cleans up another on-stage puddle, this one leftover from Cannibal Queen’s  blood capsule prop.

Space backstage is limited, but Burns finds room to pace as he practices his diction, using Biggie Smalls’ rap lyrics as word fodder. In their dressing rooms, the other actors adjust their jackets and hair before Brady calls places for Act 2.

A majority of the cast stays in the same costume throughout the show, with the exceptions of Johnson’s Nina and Burns’ bartenders. According to costume designer Mary Eggers, these characters’ “shirtography” signals the passage of time in the play.

Wardrobe supervisor Erin Harteau helps facilitate these changes, at one point holding a ashlight sidestage for Johnson as she scrambles to apply hot pink lipstick and complete her transformation into “The Nina.”

During the transition to the mysterious “Dark Horse Round,” Hambridge says it’s “all hands on deck” as she, Harteau and Morris dress Johnson’s castmates in black hoodies for The Nina’s performance of “Shadows of the Night” by Pat Benatar. Meanwhile, Dunlavey extends the catwalk to give Johnson/ The Nina more room to strut and strum during her air guitar solo.

For a majority of the show, scenic designer William Boles’ dive bar set remains stationary. When it’s time for the finale, however, the run crew releases the safety brakes holding the bar walls in place so that the actors can push the set’s four units to the back of the stage, thus expanding their performance area.

As one of her last duties for each show, Hambridge pulls a rope to unveil a giant, white backdrop emblazoned with the official US Air Guitar logo. As the characters on stage come together to perform Heart’s “Crazy on You,” the Airness crew plays air guitars of their own, whipping their hair with the music. In a few hours, they will wash pint glasses and reset the stage for another performance, but for now they are rock stars, absorbing their unseen audience’s applause.

Tags : AirnessChautauqua Theater Company

The author Kevin C. Vestal

Kevin Vestal is from Westerville, Ohio, and is a rising senior at Miami University in Ohio, studying journalism and professional writing with a minor in theater. Last summer, he interned for The Florence Newspaper in Italy, and he is excited to cover Chautauqua Theater Company and the Family Entertainment Series for the Daily. An avid thespian, Kevin recently performed on stage in Tartuffe and also has an irrational fear of wrists.