PIA SHAH: My parents were very curious about the world and passionate about traveling, arts, politics and social justice. It wasn’t something they made a point of explicitly, it was just who they were and I think it was a unique experience for children of immigrants to be exposed to so many different ways of life. I majored in International Studies at Johns Hopkins and I thought I was going to go into human rights law or the foreign service but I realized early on that it wasn’t the right fit for my personality and I started training formally at A.C.T. in San Francisco and then Esper Studio in NY, where I had teachers that took me aside and said, you know, you could do this if you wanted to. So, I decided to go for it. Theater is where I feel most alive. It’s all about the moment. Anything can happen. The rehearsal room is home to me. I will never forget the first time I saw The Cherry Orchard with Rene Augesen as Masha lying on her chaise longue in all black as the curtain opened or hearing Amy Morton scream “I’m running things now!” with every fiber of her being, just before lights went out at intermission, in August: Osage County on Broadway. Those moments are larger than life. They are pure, unforgettable and personal. They can become part of our collective psyche.
JL: NOMS DE GUERRE is a socio-political drama that addresses the U.S. military policy and the damaging impact of PTSD on veterans and their family. Why do you feel this play is relevant to today’s audiences?
PS: Well, our country has recently been involved with two major wars overseas, while at home we are largely removed from the day-to-day realities of it. We aren’t confronted with it. But those that are involved and have often chosen to join the military as young adults, still forming their ideas about the world, sometimes come back to a population that can’t understand them and vice versa. Suicide is a real problem. We don’t talk about it enough and our worlds don’t collide very frequently. That’s why this play is so interesting to me. It puts you in the living room of people that you wouldn’t normally have access to and shows you the inner workings and fraught situations bubbling beneath the pat answers and euphemisms doled out to the public.
JL: NOMS DE GUERRE also addresses women’s rights and recent restrictions places on health care for women. It’s been 50 years since the Women’s Liberation Movement swept the nation, where do you feel we are in terms of gender relations in the U.S.?
PS: My mother was the first woman in her family to get a college degree and she fought courageously against getting married until she had achieved her dream. Because of that, for me, it was never a question that I would have an education and professional career if I wanted one. We have made great advancements around the world and I’m grateful to all who have fought to push against the norm and those that continue to make progress. There is urgent work that continues to be necessary on so many fronts, here in the US and around the world. Education is the key, for both men and women. The more information both women and men have, the more awareness we spread, the more economic freedom women gain, the more likely we are to achieve equality and freedom for all. Women can think for themselves and can make their own decisions, whether it’s driving a car in the Middle East, choosing to get married and to whom or choosing to have a child and when. I just did a reading of DRY LAND at Ojai Playwrights Conference, which deals with two young girls in a Florida high school, one of whom undertakes a dangerous “home abortion” because she can’t get the necessary parental consent. Access to safe and private healthcare and choice is a basic human right. It’s not something to be voted on.
JL: Which character are you playing? What, if anything, do you have in common with this character’s passions, values, intentions or belief system?
PS: I play Hasina, the campaign manager to the Attorney General. I am a lot like Hasina in that I have courage and an inner enthusiasm and curiosity that drives me to go after what I want. I think because of what Hasina has seen, watching women in her country have to cede their ambitions and freedom to men in the last couple decades since the Taliban came to power, it is very painful for her to watch her second mother and role model in the US, Mira, give up on her dreams because of her husband's actions. She can't bear to see that happening again. I'm lucky in that my own family is very progressive (my brother is a community organizer and communications director for the Citizens Community of New York City, my dad is a pyschiatrist and my mom is a teacher and social worker). When those battles are at home, with the people closest to you, I think that takes a lot of guts to break out and follow your dreams. Hasina is a remarkable and very interesting woman.
JL: What do you hope audiences walk away thinking about after experiencing this play?
PS: Life is complex and full of contradictions. The personal and the public, the truth and the cover up, the masks and the reveals. I think people will have a better understanding of the players involved and their humanity--those that choose to fight and those that happen to have war in their backyard (and are either caught in it or escape it, like Hasina), those that pull the strings and those that do the grunt and dirty work – the different kinds of wars we all fight --both with each other and within ourselves.
JL: What’s next for you? Where can we follow your work?
PS: I’m very excited for the future. I have great representation with great taste and I’m eager to work in all mediums. I worked on an indie feature film that's currently being edited. Can’t say too much about it yet, but it will be a very funny, experimental and artistic endeavor that is close to my heart.You can check out my website at www.piashah.com or of course IMDB at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1724824/.
I’d like to do more roles in theater and good television. I had a coach who once asked me if I would ever play Masha in a major production – alluding to the fact that most high profile theaters are still so lacking in diversity. I feel that while diversity initiatives are important and useful we have to be careful not to “ghettoize” casts of color as separate from mainstream work. When I see a play or film or TV show that has not ONE character who is not white that the audience gets to linger on, feel their inner world, I am so struck by the blatant omission. I watch stories about white people and identify with them all the time. We are all full human beings, not just whatever color we happen to be. It’s absurd. I’m proud to be pushing against barriers and being cast in roles that aren’t written with me in mind, roles that aren’t about being a minority but that happen to be and I applaud everyone who is working towards that.