The Facemelters join the production team for UCI Drama’s AIRNESS
A Q&A with Jason and Lisa Farnan
A conversation with Mia Hammett
By day, Jason Farnan is a Director of UX Design; Lisa Farnan is a professional fundraiser and grant writer. By night, they’re doubly known as The Facemelters—San Diego residents and household names of U.S. Air Guitar.
Welcome to the UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts. We are thrilled that you could join us as the Department of Drama prepares for its winter 2023 production of Airness, the story of an amateur’s foray into the world of competitive air guitar. Can you tell me about how you got involved with air guitar?
Jason Farnan: Like many other people in the air guitar community. I saw the movie Air Guitar Nation. Back when we were dating, I told Lisa, ‘We gotta go to one of these shows. This looks like so much fun.’ In getting tickets to the show, I realized that, for two extra dollars, you could just sign up and compete. I had no idea you could do that. I thought they picked very specific people to be in these competitions. I didn't realize anyone could do it. I remember thinking, ‘What's the worst that could happen? Let's go have some fun.’ 14 years later, here we are, being interviewed as official ‘mentors of air guitar’ for an upcoming play.
Lisa Farnan: After Jason’s first competition in 2009, I started coaching and giving him critiques on his performances to help them resonate with the audience and the judges. Then we stepped up to organize the San Diego shows and we've been running San Diego Air Guitar since 2013. We've gotten steadily more involved in the organization and the community.
Image: Jason Farnan, the 2013 US National Air Guitar Champion, holds his championship belt with his air guitar coach and wife, Lisa Farnan.
Both of you essentially function as air guitar consultants for the upcoming play Airness, which opens on Feb. 4, 2023. What exactly does that mean, and what are you both doing to support the production?
JF: It means so much to us that we were invited to be a part of this, because we saw the play when it opened at the Humana Festival [of New American Plays] in Louisville and we fell in love with the show when we saw it. It really hit home how close it is to our community—so our goal was to share that experience with the cast, and make it as authentic as possible. We want the cast to know that we’re really like what the play portrays and that it’s very close to what we've lived for the past 14 years.
LF: In the first meeting with the cast and production crew, we gave them an air guitar-101—the history of U.S. Air Guitar as a competition, as an organization, and the values of U.S. Air Guitar and World Air Guitar. It was started actually as a peace movement by university students in Finland. The saying is ‘if you're holding an air guitar, you can't be holding a gun,’ and if everyone in the world were to simultaneously pick up an air guitar, we would have world peace because we could all be in that spirit of unity. So we shared some of the air guitar background with them. We shared a lot of YouTube videos of performances and competitions, so they could get a good idea of what a winning routine looks like. Certainly Eli [Simon], the director, wants them to look convincing—like winning air guitarists. After that, we worked with them on their tracks to make sure they were good cuts that had solid air guitar solos for them to work with; then we worked on the physicality of what it's like to hold a guitar.
JF: At the end of the day, I'd love for their routines to be so good that they would be successful in a real competition. Obviously they’re limited by the character that they play, and how that character gets portrayed. Like Lisa said—they should still be convincing performances. I'm really excited to see it; I think they're going to be phenomenal.
LF: They're a really talented group of actors. Having been used to giving feedback to air guitarists that don't have acting training, it's remarkable to see how they're trained to take notes and execute them accordingly. The progress that they've made in constructing these routines is really tremendous.
Image: 2016 US Air Guitar National Tour organizers at the USAG National Finals in Austin, TX. Pictured from left to right – stage name (name): Pvt. Melter (Lisa Farnan), Kara Picante (Kara Picante Muir), Lt. Facemelter (Jason Farnan), Doug "The Thunder" Stroock (Doug Stroock), Mean Melin (Eric Melin), The Marquis (Rob Messel)
I imagine that playing air guitar for a competition is different than adapting for an actor who is playing a character. What are some of the ways you have adapted air guitar for the theatre?
JF: They are trained not only to take notes, but to be very specific with their physical movements. They're built for this kind of stuff, really, so I was never worried about their ability to sell the character and the persona they’re portraying. It was really just the mechanics as our focal point. I told them from the very beginning that my goal was to never tell them what routine to do. They own their routines; our goal is only to help them make them the best routines possible.
LF: I think another element is that we're not coaching them to win an actual U.S. Air Guitar-judged competition, so we don't have to abide by some of the criteria that might get you disqualified in an actual competition. Each character in the play is designed to illustrate a different “pillar” of air guitar—from technical merit and community to originality and ‘airness,’ which, as it's frequently referenced in Airness: You know it when you see it—it's impossible to define.
JF: As I always like to say, ‘it's the moment that it transcends the art of air guitar and becomes an art form in and of itself.’
How exactly are air guitar competitions run? What are the combined creative forces that drive a live performance? You have a unique perspective because you are actually behind-the-scenes, judging competitions.
LF: So, in round one [of competition] you create a 60-second track and performance for your character. That is typically prepared in advance, but the extent to which people choose to do that varies. Round two of an air guitar competition is always improvised, so the organizer will pick a song, and people have to improvise a 60-second routine. It's an essential part of a typical competition. I think the creative forces that inform air guitar performances, I think a lot of it goes back to how competitive air guitar is judged. And so that's based on technical merit, the extent to which it looks like you're actually playing a guitar when the notes are happening; stage presence, which is coming up with a character; entertaining the audience; and captivating the crowd working the stage.
How do you think air guitar has evolved over the course of your career, even beyond the competitions?
JF: There was a Facebook trend a few years ago where it was asking to show your evolution over the last 10 years. I put together a Facebook cover photo of my air guitar persona over 10 years; it's funny to watch me go from this military motif of being an actual lieutenant, an old civil war general, into kind of this crazy, neon, Zubaz pants-wearing, weirdly-dressed persona, to really breaking out of that and finding my way into brand new material. I think evolution is when you’ve peaked at what you're currently best at—when maybe it's time to do something different. Two years in a row, I was all into Metallica songs. I was like, ‘I gotta do something different.’ So, in 2012, I did a song by LMFAO, which just felt so out of left field, but was so much fun to do. It’s all about figuring out how to change the game. My goal every year was to do something that nobody else had done, and I always thought it was fun to figure out what that was, because the landscape changes every year.
LF: From my perspective as an attendee of the shows and then moving on to being a judge, if you go back and look at air guitar in the infancy in the United States, which is almost 21 years ago. In the early days, a mind-blowing move was to throw an air guitar up in the air and then catch it. And the bar has continued to be raised with every year, because in the national championships, you have to defeat the defending champion. So it’s evolved to be highly competitive with people doing more elaborate costumes or more ‘crowd pleaser’ moves, like trust-falls off the balcony where the judges are, or beer spray spits, which look phenomenal when the lighting is just right. We've had people really get methodical about the engineering that goes into creating the perfect 60-second track, from doing mash-ups to editing a song where you add-in an epic guitar solo or sound effects. We've had pyrotechnics; we've had glitter confetti. It's a limitless pool of creativity, and we see the bar being raised every year for how to outdo what used to be considered incredible.
LF: [We]’re very excited about the competition because there's never been a competitive air guitar show in Orange County to our knowledge, so it's very cool for it to be tied into this play since it serves as a primer for audiences.
Image: Jason and Lisa Farnan at the 2013 Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland, where the finals have been hosted since 1996.
Air guitar offers so many different avenues of creative expression—from individual character to music selection. From where do you each draw your inspiration?
JF: Other people that we’ve watched, if I'm being honest; it inspires me to try something new, or to make my moves better to compete against them. There's so many cool things that have already been done in the community that I like to go to first. Otherwise, it’s when I’m playing video games or watching TV. It's amazing how many things get into your head, where you're just like, ‘Oh man—air guitar.’ We'll be out at a restaurant or bar and we're enjoying a beer, and when a song with a really good guitar riff plays on the jukebox, we’re just like, ‘Hold on now—can I do something with this? Should I do something with this?’ After doing it for so many years, you can't not think about it when you hear that kind of stuff.
LF: I get a lot of creative inspiration from the different environments that we're in. You start to view the world through a different lens, where anything could be used for air guitar. Every place is just rife with creative potential; the possibilities are endless.
What do you hope the audience will take away from Airness? What do you hope to achieve or express in the US Air Guitar Competition in Irvine that you will be hosting as part of the live shows in February?
JF: I would love to see people get excited about air guitar. If you talk to anybody about competitive guitar, the majority of the people you talk to will say, “Wait, what? That exists?” and I’ll say, “Hell yeah. It's real, and it's spectacular.” It's such an easy thing for people to make fun of, but I want people to go to the show and realize that while it's a silly thing we do, we love to take it seriously. I hope people come away from this play seeing something that they've never seen before. I hope it sends a message that finding the people that mean the most to you, and taking every advantage to stick with them, grow with them, and be a part of that community; is really what the play is about. That's meant so much to us over the years and the friends we've made have been such a major part of our lives—all because I took a 60-second risk on stage.
LF: It’s beautiful to find people you can be your weird, authentic self with. The story told in this play is about finding the people that you click with, and how you can support, build, and honor community.”
Image: Jason Farnan leads a group at a San Diego Air Guitar competition.
Your work in these productions sounds exciting. I look forward to seeing what you both have done with the UCI Drama community and the US Air Guitar Competition in Irvine on Feb. 11. What creative ambitions lie ahead for The Facemelters?
JF: When I think about going beyond what we've done before, it's kind of just getting my feet wet in a different way—how we can still stay involved, but maybe not to the degree that we were previously used to. ‘How can we make an impact in very short, pointed decisions, instead of these long, broad strokes we’re used to making?’ I think doing this with UCI is a very good example of that. I'm always looking for a different way to support what we do, especially in the community. They've always been my number-one priority from an organizational standpoint. My goal is that, if you're a new performer, or if you're new to seeing the show, I want you to have the same experience I had 14 years ago now; I want you to feel what I felt.
LF: At the end of the day, we just want to be good ambassadors of air guitar and spread the gospel of air guitar, and help people have fun, whether that means being silly on stage or receiving the energy that the performers are giving. We just want to help people have fun.
Airness will open at the Claire Trevor Theatre from Feb. 4-12, 2023. The US Air Guitar Championships – Irvine will be hosted at 10 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, after the 7:30 p.m. performance of Airness. Learn more on the Drama website at drama.arts.uci.edu, or purchase tickets directly with this link.