Interview: Comedian & Chicago Air Guitar Champion Aarón Alonso
By Matt Byrne in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 22, 2013 4:00PM
When most folks hear the term "performance art," a vision of some pompous 20 year old art student sitting in the middle of a gallery space stuffing his face with an unhealthy amount of grapes insisting it's some sort of commentary on colonialism isn't far behind. Chicago-based sketch performer Aarón Alonso incorporates some of the visual and performative elements from this most highbrow of forms into something more absurd, crafting solo performance bits that are surreal but strangely grounded and accessible.
Alonso's path through the Chicago comedy scene is one similar to most others: classes at iO, Second City, and The Annoyance, but what he's chosen to do with that training sets him apart from his peers. Chicagoist spoke with Alonso about his creative background and his recent adventures in the world of competitive air guitar (last month, he was named Chicago's regional finalist). Alonso performs Wait, What?, a one night only solo sketch piece, tonight at 10 p.m. at iO.
CHICAGOIST: You're originally from Juarez, Mexico, when did you decide to move to Chicago?
Aarón Alonso: Juarez is a border city with El Paso, TX, so, growing up, I would have to cross the border every day to go to school. It wasn't a big deal to me at the time. But now that I moved, people always think that's crazy, it was just part of the rhythm of things, but I guess it is pretty crazy
I graduated college and wanted to pursue comedy, so I started researching the development and upbringing of performers that have made an impact in the comedy community in the United States and everything led me to improv. I then started researching where to go, New York, L.A., Chicago I moved to do improv in Chicago, and ended up taking classes at Second City, Annoyance, and iO up until about two years ago.
C: You have very unique performance style, which I've explained in the past as a blend of performance art and solo sketch. Did things start out fairly straightforward and evolve, becoming what you do now?
Aarón Alonso: I've always been a performer, even as a kid. I really, really liked performance art, even to this day, I enjoy the visual aspect of performance art, that's the main part of it that appealed to me. I started researching some performance artists from around the world, I came close to pursuing that, but I found myself thinking: "what am I doing? This is so pretentious and overly conceptual..."
Comedy was the other thing that I really liked, when I came to Chicago to do comedy, I was doing mostly short narratives at The Annoyance and doing sketch work with a group called Ladyparts, which did fairly well, but ended when the director moved to LA.
My world was surrounded by improv and sketch, I spent probably two and a half years doing two or three shows a week and watching other shows every other night. I started to understand how everything worked and I started to get real bored. Sketchwork is pretty much an equation. It's A+B=C, you one-up someone and then I don't remember the term you need to I don't know, sketch stuff! [Laughs]
I started to get really bored with all that, improv wasn't getting me anywhere, it was just an addicting mental thing, like being addicted to chess. When I was interning at iO, Matt Barbera [President of The Playground Theater] asked me to do a solo performance at one of the Playground's solo showcases, which I thought that sounded pretty cool!
At that point, I had been hired at Second City to do BrownCo, but that felt even more restricting and limited. I thought, even if Second City was the only way for me to get paid to do comedy, I couldnt conform to that any more. Matt helped me put together this solo show, which was the first fully integral show I ever did. There was a baby onstage that was talking to a bird that was eating a sea cow. I started to get a really bad sunburn, so I opened up the sea cow and I start throwing blood on myself When I left the stage, I was so happy, man. I felt like I had finally had an orgasm in comedy. [Laughs]
I said, fuck it, I'm gonna do my own stuff, I'm gonna incorporate performance art, which I've always wanted to do. I understand how the arc of sketch works, so using that, I'm able to create my own style of work.
I went to France last year to take a clowning class for a month, which tied everything together and helped me realize how to find the pleasure in these wacky things I do onstage. It's been a continuous process. It's always surprising to me onstage, hearing people react to things I didn't expect them to. I like that, that's what comedy is, it's all about surprises.
C: You recently competed in the US Air Guitar Championships under the name Dry Ice. I've seen some footage of your performances and it couldn't be more different than your normal onstage persona. It's much more visceral and unhinged; is that just another part of your personality that you can't normally share or is more like a character you're playing?
Aarón Alonso: I just flew into Los Angeles for the National championship last weekend, there was about 20 competitors and I finished seventh. The competition was fierce, it was a great time.
Dry Ice is a beast of it's own. It's something that I do totally outside the whole performance scene, it's my way of to be as energetic as possible, to the point where people might be a little bit uncomfortable. It's just a guy rocking out, but that's not something you can always have onstage. I like to feel the opposite ends of the spectrum as a performer, I can't get more energetic than Dry Ice.
C: What drew you to that sort of performance style? When did you decide to actually go for it?
Aarón Alonso: When I first moved to Chicago, I was telling my random roommates about how I'd came here to do comedy, and they mentioned they had a good friend who happened to be the four-time Chicago air guitar champion. I was like, "this sounds like the most ridiculous, geekiest, nerdiest, thing I'd ever heard of. I kind of don't even want to know what it is."
Then I met the guy [Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard], this very happy, personable guy, with a beard down to his nipples and his hair down to his waist, he looked crazy. He introuduced me these different different characters that exist across the United States, it was really cool, people were really into it.
When I finally went and saw a competition in Chicago, and it was so appealing to me. It was the first time I had identified with US culture, in the sense of being able to feel something really passionately.
Honestly, it's just a side thing I do, it's not my big battle, I don't want to be the champion of anything, I'm happy to be the Chicago finalist and to have been flown to LA and party.
C: What can folks expect from the performance of Wait, What? Is it one full piece or series of smaller sketches?
Aarón Alonso: It's a compilation of some elements that I've done before mixed with a totally new act and some characters and a minimal amount of sketch. I have a 35-40 minute piece, but I wanted it to be more digestible for the audience, I don't want to people to have to sit down and watch a David Lynch movie Like, "oh my god, I don't know what this guy is doing, and I kind of want to leave!"
I want it to be entertaining, of course, I'm not some anarchist-fuck-you-anti-comedian, not at all. My goal is to entertain people while maintaining my integrity. This is a piece made for people to come watch. It's the biggest piece I've ever done, and I'm really happy with it.
Wait, What? is tonight, Thursday, Aug. 22 at iO's Del Close Theater, 3541 N. Clark. Tickets on sale now.