Airness, a new play by Chelsea Marcantel premiered last month at The Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky.

The play is deceptively simple, a Cinderella story of an unlikely competitor rising to the top of a difficult competition.

What makes Airness a crowd pleaser is the specific competition involved; Marcantel’s script immerses the audience in the world of competitive air guitar. It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s very physical, and it lets the audience take vicarious pleasure as the characters act in ways every audience member likely would were they not constrained by the unwritten yet iron clad rule of society: Never look silly.

But Airness stays with the viewer after the last guitar chord has faded because of the way its complex layers ask the question “what is real?” when it comes to families, groups, and societies.
 

Brian Quijada, Matt Burns in Airness by Chelsea Marcantel, 2017 Humana Festival. Photo by Bill Brymer.

The air guitar competitions at the center of this play ask the most straightforward version of this question.

Air guitarists don’t play guitar; it’s an elaborate make-believe, with props and costumes. So if there are no real instruments involved, how does this competition matter? How is it real?

While the script may be shaped like the average underdog tale, the characters feel grounded and organic, so that the stakes of the competition come off as important, whether or not a “real” art or “serious” competition is involved.

Marcantel was originally inspired to write Airness because of an ex-boyfriend who discovered air guitar. “I learned about the world of completive air guitar about eight or nine years ago, when I was living in Chicago. I was dating a guy who got into it. At the time it seemed very strange,” said Marcantel.

But strange and insular worlds appeal to the playwright: “I am always interested as a writer and as a human being in small groups of people that have their own sort of value systems, and their own ways of doing things.”

When Marcantel began the writing and researching process for Airness in earnest, she came to reconsider her ex’s obsession. “I thought back on it, and I think for him it was less about that he found an activity that he liked to do, and more about the fact that he found his tribe.”

Airness becomes universal when addressing the tribe of the air guitarist. It’s an echo of one of the more prominent and recurring themes in modern drama, that of the legitimacy of found families. The idea of found families only becomes more prominent as we as a society become more and more connected to our activities, rather than our religions and communities. I doubt I know the religious beliefs and practices of my dozen closest friends, but I know if they like Star Wars or Star Trek better. And If they play D&D, or Settlers of Cataan, or cosplay, or Larp (live action role-playing), or karaoke passionately. If they are involved with a local theatre company, I definitely know that; and I know which one and what their last show was.

Found families are present on every level of the artistic spectrum, though too often they are played for cheap laughs, à la the movies Balls of Fury or Knights of Badassdom.

One of the qualities that makes this sort of story and these sort of characters sing is an attention to detail in recreating the world of those families.

Being faithful to her subjects is a concern of Macantel’s. “Usually when I’m workshopping something and it’s about a subculture, a small group of people that isn’t one to which I belong, I’m always very wary that I’m gonna overstep, or get something wrong, or I’m gonna change something for the sake of drama, that is gonna make it ring false.”

In the workshop process and rehearsal hall of Airness, Marcantel had a secret weapon to help cement the reality of her work: Matt Burns, the 2016 World Air Guitar Champion.

Though he’s not a professional actor, Burns was hired to play a small role in the play. He recalled his audition during the same interview in which I spoke with Marcantel.

“I was like, the only shot I have is to be the best air guitarist, because I’m certainly not the best actor,” said Burns.

Having Burns as an actor, and an expert on the world the play was trying to represent no doubt allowed Marcantel to worry about the rest of the play. “It was a certain kind of freedom having him in the room, cause I was like, if I do something, he’s gonna tell me that’s not how that would go,” said Marcantel.

Marcantel was well aware of Burns before he auditioned. The team was excited because they had seen “Airistotle”—Burns’ air guitar persona—perform online, which in a way points to the biggest and most amorphous family of all: the internet.

It’s a family that influences the world of air guitar. Many neophytes dive deep into online videos. By the time Burns auditioned, Marcantel had already seen him perform repeatedly on YouTube and once in person.

“Oh yeah, I knew exactly who he was, and I went to the Staten Island qualifier last year while I was researching the play, and he did the halftime show.”

In a bit of dramatic irony, while Burns was nervously standing in the hall preparing for his audition, Marcantel and other members of the production team were awaiting his arrival with bated breath, excited to meet Airistotle.

YouTube culture, the internet, and its importance to the air guitar community make an early appearance in Airness.

Nina O’Neal, our erstwhile Cinderella, is still learning about the world of air guitar, and Ed “Shreddy Eddy” Leary is showing her a selection of YouTube videos. In Marcantel’s script, stage directions explain the way YouTube is presented onstage. Note that the characters are listed by the names they use in competitions, the play’s commitment to taking air guitar seriously extends even into the stage directions.

FACEBENDER, CANNIBAL QUEEN, and GOLDEN step into the boxes of light. They are in the videos. We watch them, and we see what NINA and SHREDDY are seeing. NINA and SHREDDY have the power to pause, rewind, and fast-forward the videos, and the bodies of FACEBENDER, CANNIBAL QUEEN, and GOLDEN must respond accordingly.

It’s a clever and engaging device, but it also points again to the way Marcantel’s themes of family and connection are wrapped in emerging and submerging levels of reality. If one ignores the performance value of air guitar, then Nina and Shreddy are watching a video of people listening to music. But while Nina sometimes doubts air guitar’s validity, the play never does, and by extension it implores us to accept the importance of found families.

Anything you can believe in, you should believe in.
 

Nate Miller in Airness by Chelsea Marcantel, 2017 Humana Festival. Photo by Bill Brymer.

Airness also asks how seriously we should take the larger divisions we make between people. Gender is addressed by focusing on the connection Nina and competitor Cannibal Queen might have as two women in a pastime dominated by men.

Race is subtly explored in a single interaction between Golden Thunder and Nina. The script calls for Golden Thunder to be played by a person of color, and in the Actors Theatre production Nina was also played by a person of color (though the script presents an alternate line to be used if Nina is played by a white person.)

NINA: I’ve been working on some choreography for “American Girl,” Tom Petty.
GOLDEN: Were you raised by white people?
NINA: Hey!

The indication in the original production is that Golden Thunder guessed correctly. Perhaps this means that race is real, or perhaps it suggests that culture and cultural artifacts—like the music you grew up with and revere—is even more real. Marcantel doesn’t spell out that answer for us.

The dissolution of our former found families and communities continues apace. Reports indicate that more and more people in America either consider themselves atheist, or at least don’t identify with a church.

What comes in to replace religion and traditional small town communities may look a lot like the family seen in Airness.

Hopefully more writers will present those families with Marcantel’s level of sincerity, attention to detail, and love.