November 15, 2023

Cast - like the faux guitar heroes they play - achieves 'Airness'

Theater department's fall production explores the world of air guitar competitions

J.D. Mathes
Author: J.D. Mathes
November 15, 2023

The stage of the ARTS Building’s Studio Theatre is a floor with seating on three sides. For the theatre department’s latest production, “Airness,” the stage is converted to a Staten Island bar, with the bar and stools set back to the right and tables and chairs to the left. Downstage across the middle is a dais raised about a foot above the floor. On this platform one witnesses the air guitar shredding triumphs and failures of seven competitors on their quest to qualify for the national championship and a chance to compete at the Air Guitar World Championship in Oulu, Finland.

The comedy “Airness” written by Chelsea Marcantel and directed by Hannah Wolf of UCR’s Department of Theatre, Film, and Digital Production,  follows Nina as she enters the world of air guitar competition. From a bar in Staten Island, she meets more seasoned, and nerdier competitors, their flamboyant personas, as wild and over the top as the rock ‘n’ roll stars they emulate. They travel the country and Nina begins to hear the others’ stories, their fears and hopes, and she discovers the real people under the costumes, make-up, and wigs. She also learns what it means to connect to people in a community while embracing their absurdity and the seriousness of air guitar. It’s not a stretch to compare it to WrestleMania, including the melodramatic body language of heroes and villains – including the holding of the championship belt, but also as Roland Barthes says of wrestling’s spectacle, “what is portrayed…is the ideal understanding of things.”

In her quest, Nina, searches for her own persona and the perfect song to air-shred. Her new friends tell her that to win a spot at Nationals, she must learn to lose herself in the performance and connect her soul to the audience. She needs to attain “airness.” In an interview, Eric “Mean” Melin, winner of the 2013 world title, explains airness “is that spark of creativity. Someone who makes the song come alive. [To go] beyond what a ‘there’ guitar can do.”

Frederico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) gave a lecture about this state of artistic expression called the duende. In this context, a true and authentic performance happens when an artist lets go as “the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet… in a style that’s truly alive.” Viewers who experience this are in communion with a mysterious force they feel but can’t explain. A tall order for the novice air guitarist who has transformed herself into The Nina.

But stop. Now think of what it means for an actor to assume a role with the duende and then perform an imaginary, one-minute guitar solo with airness for - not an air guitar audience - but a theatre audience. A challenge upon a challenge for an artist. Without spoilers, airness was present throughout the performance and this is indicative of Wolf’s directorial skill and the talent of the performers she directs.

Wolf says, “this is a show to bring your friends to who don’t like theatre.” The show is “joyous and accessible.”

The players interact with the audience as if they are an air guitar crowd. The line between audience and cast and the play and the competition become blurred. We find ourselves immersed in this world, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself air-shredding along like a nerd with The Nina as she takes her big shot at fame and find her place in life. As the boys in AC/DC sing, “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll,” and the trip with this cast is a lot of fun.

Please be advised that this production includes atmospheric smoke effects and flashing lights, and contains strong language and adult subject matter. Recommended for teens and above. Show times are Nov. 16, 8 p.m.; Nov. 17, 8 p.m., and Nov. 18 at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Photographs by G Novytskyi. Feature photograph is of Rachel Millar ("Cannibal Queen") and George Shen ("D Vicious"). Secondary photograph is of Shen. 

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