Real men and air guitar at Geva. Plus, win a $46.75 ticket

Real men and air guitar at Geva. Plus, win a $46.75 ticket

[1/23/22 Geva Theatre Center provides a mini-stage where patrons can air guitar. The full sign reads: Free Air Guitar Rentals. Try Before You Fly. David Kramer achieving Airness. Photo: Laura Chekow, Head House Manager]

Like most Geva subscribers, when my tickets arrived I had no idea that the first play of the season, Airness, was about the universe of competitive air guitar. Like many Geva subscribers, I’ve had very little exposure to air guitar, having never owned one, nor knew competitive air guitar exists. (SEE GEVA SERIES AT END) 

Playbill and display case

My only brief experience with air guitar was in 1981 when I captained the Monroe County Interscholastic League Chess Champions, then called the Brighton Barons.

Perhaps as an expression of adolescent rebellion, during practices and matches, Alan Sun (Board Three) wore a bandana and played air guitar while listening to rock anthems on a Walkman®.

(left) (1980/81 season. Brighton vs. Webster, From the Democrat & Chronicle. Caption; “Dave Kramer of Brighton concentrates on his next move. He lost.” From Wildcats strike out our undermanned Barons, (center) Alan Sun when a Junior at Brighton High School, Crossroads Yearbook, 1981 from One of Brighton High School’s Fab Five is back in town ; (right) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Nov 27, 1983. Andy Smith’s description of The Complete Air Guitar Handbook, no doubt read by Alan. If you’ve ever become so moved by rock ‘n’ roll that you find yourself playing an imaginary guitar, there’s a new book out called The Complete Air Guitar Handbook (Long Shadow Books, $2.95) that will help you hone your air guitar technique. The air guitar is certainly worth learning after all, it’s cheap, portable and easy to play. With just a few minutes’ practice you can be windmilling your arms like Pete Townshend or playing with your teeth like Jimi Hendrix. As an air guitarist of some note myself, my advice is that the key to looking as if you really do know how to play is in the intricate fingering on the imaginary neck of the air guitar.

Finally, one of Alan’s opponents complained about his distracting behavior. That team’s advisor went to our advisor and me, asking Alan to stop. We had no choice but to muzzle Board Three, and Alan begrudgingly took off his bandana, turned off the Walkman®, and meekly folded his hands as if in prayer: taking one for the team.

I’ve never felt good about that act of artistic censorship.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Mar 28, 2015

If anything, Alan was ahead of his time. In 1999, Rochester finally welcomed the Air Guitar/Senior High Talent Show. I believe Alan has since hung up his air guitar, but undoubtedly his fingers twitch from time to time. (Actually, Alan was and is a very good “real” guitarist.)

Geva’s delightful performance is both entertaining and an educational tutorial on competitive air guitar. I see air guitar as a hybrid form. It is closest to dance and ballet and other movement arts, but the accompanying music is strictly rock and roll. Unlike rock, there are no instruments. Not unlike World Wrestling Entertainment, some of the acts are scripted, while others are improvisational, like jazz.  While air guitarists would probably balk, there is some overlap with karaoke and cover bands as air guitarists do not compose their own lyrics. The genre relies on exaggeration, excess, parody, silliness, humor and campiness with some elements of drag thrown in.

Robert David Grant catches some air as Shreddy Eddie in Geva Theatre Center’s production of Airness. PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.

And then there is Airness. Throughout the play, the characters try to name and reach ineffable Airness, elusive and ethereal. US Air Guitar attempted to define airness as “the extent to which a performer transcends the imitation of a real guitar and becomes an art form in itself.” Turning to metaphor to describe airness as affect or aesthetic, Brazilian champion Fausto Carrato — in terms both lofty and earthy — stated, “It’s like nirvana, or something more materialistic like an orgasm or something like that.”

Furthermore, as the characters in the play mention several times, Airness is true when both performer and spectator feel the same vibe.  I don’t know if I reached nirvana, but my short dance before the show felt orgasmic.

Photo: Laura Chekow, Head House Manager

Whether or not you reach paradise or climax, you will enjoy an evening with The Nina, Cannibal Queen, Shreddy Eddy, Facebender, Golden Thunder, and D Vicious. And you’ll be excited by the cameo appearance of Matt Burns, a two-time World Air Guitar Champion from Staten Island, New York.

From the Playbill

At the same time, Airness is not just about air guitar. The play is also about the power of art to create community and meaning. You’ll notice, conspicuously, that almost nothing is revealed about the lives of the characters outside their air guitar personas. What we do learn is rather grim: one character is in a “ethical non-monogamous marriage” and another is estranged from his daughter and has what might be the worst job in the world: public guardian in San Diego.

In perhaps the most memorable (and morbid) vignette, Facebender describes how his task is to clean out — sometimes wearing hazmat gear — disgusting apartments where people have died utterly alone. This is the dark nadir of the play, but one overshadowed by the joy of the air guitarists who make no money, hang  out in dinghy bars, and thrive on their love for the transcendence of airness.

I did do a little research into air guitar. The best academic essay on the subject I found is Sydney Hutchinson’s “Putting Some Air on Their Chests: Masculinity and Movement in Competitive Air Guitar” (2014), written when she taught at Syracuse University.

Abstract. The World of Music new series, Vol. 3, No. 2, Music, Movement, and Masculinities (2014), pp. 79-103 (25 pages) Published By: VWB – Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung

Basically, Hutchinson argues — I think persuasively — that competitive Air Guitar opens up spaces that work against hypermasculine “cock rock” conventions, ones represented in Airness.

Very early on, the play alludes to an undercurrent in air guitar culture: the male guitarists are not real guitarists, and if not, are they real men? One of the first jokes is about a naked air guitarists who used his penis as a fake guitar and was disqualified for having an instrument on stage. At the risk of being Freudian, the implication is that male air guitarists lack the “phallus.” Later, we learn the sole prize for winning the nationals is a “real” guitar — i.e. winning your masculinity. At another point, a female character criticizes the men for not understanding that no one takes them seriously. They are nothing but “unfuckable losers.”

2009 World Air Guitar Championships in Oulu, Finland. From Sydney Hutchinson’s “Putting Some Air on Their Chests: Masculinity and Movement in Competitive Air Guitar” (2014)

But, crucially — in contrast to “cock rock” — the play allows for alternative constructions of masculinity. While the players are competitors, their primary allegiance is to community, often invoking the term “collaboration.” The most hypermasculine of the group is basically shunned because he is a sexist moron. Facebender, whose sexual orientation is hazy, is known for the deep, if crying, feelings in his air guitar acts. The other men wholly embrace him. The sole black character calls himself an agent of peace and unity, wearing a shirt “Air Not War.”

In “Geva Theatre Center presents goofy, joyful ‘Airness'” (1/21/22, CITY Magazine), Katherine Varga says, “the three main male air guitarists are refreshing antidotes to toxic masculinity.” I agree.

Still, as Hutchison says about air guitar in general, the play eventually upholds the norms of hetero normativity.  At closure — a  seeming happy ending — we get a thrilling heterosexual pairing.  Furthermore, the ending hints that Facebender and the female guitarist of the “ethical non-monogamous marriage” may couple. While Facebender may still have a hazy orientation, at this time, he chooses heterosexiality.

Hutchinson concludes:

If other spheres of entertainment can be credited with creating with instituting societal change through creating an alternative imaginary or “performance of the possible” , why not air guitar? Not everyone has hair on their chests, but all us can have air there.

Hutchinson’s academic prose can be rough going, but I am on board. Airness for all!

POSTSCRIPT

The headline mentions winning a $46.75 ticket. Well not exactly. For decades, my mother Carol Kramer and her friends Lucian Waddell and Julie Everitt attended Geva performances, and I joined when in town. With Carol’s passing, we have an extra ticket.

(left) Portrait of Richard Pine, Geva lobby; (right) Gift from Lucian Waddell to Carol Kramer, ceramic miniature: “Geva Theatre, Rochester, New York, Performing at the Richard Pine Theatre, 25th Anniversary Season 1997 – 1998, Limited Edition” From Geva’s Once and eastern European fatalism

Bonus: Free Coat Check

Recently, our web upkeep fees went from $50/month to $75/month. I am offering the ticket for $25, all of which will go towards the fees. The ticket can be used at any performance; Airness runs through February 6th.  Email with your interest to [email protected] You can donate through the DONATE button found on every page. Of course, all are encourage to donate to Talker of the Town. To be sustainable, we need your support. Talker aint free and I foot the bill.

Actually, Lucian and Julie did not attend the show. Not wanting to go alone, I joined subscribers Bob Katz, both Carol’s long time stockbroker and friend, and his wife Ann Chase. In the past, Bob has performed in community theater and other venues, even making it semi-big time once in 1995.

Democrat and Chronicle, 22 Jan 1995

Bob and Ann offered insights for this essay.

PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS IN THE COMMENT SECTION AT END

THE GEVA SERIES

Geva’s “Once” and eastern European fatalism

“Slow Food” at Geva: More neo-Marxist fun.

Geva’s “The Niceties” and the 1619 Project

Performing gender at Geva: La Cage aux Folles

Geva’s Hard Cell and problematic caricatures

Talker has two tickets to Geva. Seeking connoisseur of the arts

Thumbs up for Geva’s “Thurgood”

A finely executed performance of Mockingbird at GEVA. And on the “white trash” Ewells

The office as therapy in Geva’s The May Queen

What critics said about Moon for the Misbegotten from 1947 onward

Deconstructing (and admiring) GeVa’s “Miracle on South Division Street” through the looking glass.

Seeing Red. Did we violate “sacred space” backstage at GeVa?

About The Author

dkramer3@naz.edu

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.

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