Lake Forest's Citadel Theatre brings the world of air guitar to its stage with the rockin' comedy with music 'Airness' playing April 19-May 21
As a certain song popularized by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in 1981 suggests, who doesn't love rock "n roll and at times fantasize about themselves as a rock star? Many of those who can't fight that feeling anymore join the world of air guitar competition, where they pantomime playing an imaginary guitar, often while in the context of a character they have created for themselves as a rock guitarist. For these make-believe rock stars, air guitar is a serious endeavor - far from the frequently alcohol-infused courage of getting up to sing at a bar's karaoke night. Air guitarists compete in a series of regional competitions with strict, clearly defined rules that lead up to an annual national championship and even a world championship. AIRNESS - the title of the play - is the official name of the most subjective of air guitar judging criteria. Analogous to the "presentation" criterion in figure skating, "airness" is the degree to which the performance was an object of art by itself, not only a simulation of playing guitar. This is the world captured in the comedy AIRNESS, which Citadel Theatre will present April 19 - May 21 at their performance venue located in the West Campus of the Lake Forest School District building at 300 S. Waukegan Road, Lake Forest.
AIRNESS was written by Chelsea Marcantel, a 2021 winner of the Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre. Since its premiere at the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2017, it has been performed all over the US. Citadel's production will be the play's Chicago-area premiere. In the play, a young woman, Nina, enters her first air guitar competition for nefarious reasons, thinking winning will be easy. But as she joins a community of charismatic nerds all committed to becoming the next champion, she discovers that there's more to this art form than playing pretend; it's about finding yourself in your favorite songs and performing with raw joy. Director Joe Lehman (who directed YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN for Citadel and many other musicals and comedies in the northwest suburbs for such theatres as Metropolis and Williams Street Repertory) says "it's a comedy with heart - and characters the audience will come to cheer for, much in the spirit of feel-good stories about competition like ROCKY and SCHOOL OF ROCK, as the characters make their way through regional competitions to the national championship.
"AIRNESS isn't a musical, but it uses music to awaken memories and stir emotions. We have clips of 15 popular rock songs, but to be consistent with air guitar competition rules, we can play only one minute of each of them. Even so, they help tell the story. Our cast is experienced in connecting to music, so they know how to use song to help establish their characters." Lehman says the songs in the show represent a variety of rock genres, from classic rock to heavy metal. Some of the hits the audience will hear in AIRNESS are "More Than a Feeling," "Keep on Lovin' You" and "Arpeggios from Hell," along with "I Love Rock n' Roll."
"We're hoping to help our audiences experience the visceral thrill of air guitar," Lehman explains. "It's like taking the polar plunge for screaming strangers every night. While the first round of competition allows the competitor to perform a song they've rehearsed, the second round requires them to pantomime a song of the judge's choosing. Without the benefit of rehearsal, they must abandon their inhibitions and throw themselves into their song. It helps that they have developed something akin to the characters pro wrestlers create for themselves. They can rely on that rock star alter-ego rock so they can deliver a winning stage presence even if they are not fully prepared to perform the chosen song."
The characters in AIRNESS go by such colorful names as "Shreddy Eddy," "Facebender," and "Cannibal Queen." Gina Czarkowski, who has been competing as an air guitarist since 2010 under the name "Rocky Rhodes" and who is "air guitar consultant" to Citadel's production, explains how some competitors go to great lengths to create a persona. "Many of the competitors," she says, "not only come up with a name, but also create a backstory for their character." Other competitors just perform as a heightened version of themselves. "It's like taking their own personality but dialing it up to 11.
"What air guitar really is," Czarkowski continues, "is an elaborate joke between the audience and the performer. I'm going to pretend that I'm a rock star and the audience is going to pretend to believe me. Part of the joke is in creating exaggerated strumming and picking and body movements that are both heightened reality and humorous. It's part improv comedy and part interpretive dance. It's a comment on the larger-than-life status of real-life rock stars."
Czarkowski's role in the production as air guitar consultant initially involved coaching the cast of mostly musical theater performances in the techniques of pretending to play a guitar. "I didn't choreograph them, though, " she says (Jake Ganzer is the show's choreographer). "I just gave them the tools so they could develop their own performance style that would be consistent with their take on their characters. They're such good performers - trained in dance and movement - that they've picked up the art of air guitar easily." Czarkowski's influence has gone beyond technical advice, though. She says, "I shared with them a lot of anecdotes of my experience in the air guitar world to give them a window into that creative community - a perspective they could use in developing their characters."
With Lehman and Czarkowski's guidance, the seven-member cast of AIRNESS will be throwing themselves with abandon into their air guitar performances. And who knows, maybe after Airness closes on May 21, some of them may even enter the Chicago regional air guitar competition, to be held on June 3rd.
AIRNESS will play the Citadel Theatre, located in the West Campus of the Lake Forest School District building at 300 S. Waukegan Road, Lake Forest, from April 19 - May 21, 2023. For further information or tickets, visit www.citadeltheatre.com or call 847-735-8554, ext. 1.