From Page to Stage: Airness

by Airness playwright Chelsea Marcantel

The process of bringing Airness from page to stage was very atypical. The normal development process for a new play takes years of workshops and readings with different directors and casts, sometimes all across the country, before becoming a fully-realized professional production. The process for Airness happened really quickly, with only one group of people, which I think ended up adding to the energy and the family-like feeling of the final play.

I wrote Airness in my final year at The Juilliard School. It was the last play I brought in to class in 2016. After I did about a third draft of it, I sent it to my agent. She submitted it to Actors Theatre of Louisville, and to my great surprise and elation, they took the play just as it was for the 2017 Humana Festival of New American Plays. Meredith McDonough, who was the Associate Artistic Director there at the time, really loved the play and believed in it and wanted to direct it from that very early draft. Normally, by the time you get to the stage where there's going to be a major professional production, there is a director, maybe a designer, and at least a few actors attached to the project—but we were starting from scratch. We cast the show in New York (some of the actors I knew and some I didn't), assembled the design team (some designers I knew and some I didn't), and roped in the reigning Air Guitar World Champ Airistotle and our amazing movement director, Jenny Koons, and off we went to Louisville for two months.

We built the show together as a team. All the rewrites and adjustments and new drafts that would normally be done over months or years in various workshops and readings happened in the rehearsal room or my hotel room, in just a few weeks. It was a very concentrated, accelerated process. Everyone was learning from each other and doing their own deep-dives into research, and the show ballooned from seventy minutes to two hours based on all the cool stuff we wanted to include. Then we trimmed it back down to ninety minutes, because that's really the sweet spot for a comedy like this. We played air guitar in rehearsal every day—the rehearsals weren't split into separate choreography and scene work days. There was a lot of experimentation and a lot of "air band"—in which people worked together on routines that would never make it into the show, but taught us all so much about the characters and helped the actors get air guitar into their bodies. We were extremely fortunate to have Matt Burns "Airistotle", the world's foremost air guitarist in the cast as well as Lucas Papaelias, who is an actual rock guitarist. Between the two of them and Jenny, with a lot of input from the actors, they were able to create truly astonishing air guitar routines that did as much storytelling as the script.

It was a much faster-paced development process that happened with a singular group of people. It was extraordinary in every way, and it really turned us into a family.

Behind-the-Scenes Photos from Humana Festival courtesy of Chelsea Marcantel

See full gallery here!

Some of my favorite memories of the process include...

  • Getting together with the actors in our hotel rooms after rehearsal to drink bourbon (Louisville!), watch YouTube videos of air guitar, and spitball ideas.
  • The first time we had a very small audience of fellow Humana Festival actors—they laughed a lot and really boosted our spirits in tech.
  • The weekend that all of Airistotle's air guitar friends showed up from all across the country to see the show—it was a wild time and so good to get their positive feedback on how we depicted their world.
  • Honestly, I've never laughed and smiled so much during a rehearsal process. Sometimes at the end of the day, my face was sore.
  • I wanted to decorate the lobby of our particular theatre to feel like a dive bar, so during tech, my dramaturg and I went to the mall and bought a bunch of band posters, and we cut up a bunch of issues of Rolling Stone, and put up photos of bands and rock stars all over the lobby. That was really fun.
  • One day that stands out in particular was the day we choreographed Nina's Dark Horse performance. It was the first group number and we were trying lots of things to see what would work best. The moment Jenny Koons turned that fan on Marinda Anderson for the first time, we all knew we had a perfect theatrical moment. And it felt that way every single night in performance as well.