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By Brian Robin

Defying Labels With Brotherly Love

You can’t pigeon-hole Arya Shahi into one creative nook. Just when you think he’s an actor, he writes a poem or a play. When you call him a writer, his next credit is as a producer. Then, he morphs into a director.

This is why Shahi’s bio reads, “Author/Actor/Director/Rapper/ Playwright/Poet/Producer/Musician.” Trying to put Shahi into one creative discipline is an endless game of whack-a-mole.

So how would Shahi describe himself?

“The kitschy answer is storyteller, but I don’t like that. I don’t like being the commodification of that word,” he said. “Everyone lives their own lives and tells their own stories, so it applies to everyone. For me, I’m a person who loves words. … If I have to choose one thing, I guess at this point of my career, I’d say ‘writer.’ That feels very strange.

“Maybe ‘theatremaker?’ I have the most hours in the bank for making theatre, but I’ve directed, written, acted. I view making theatre as a very holistic experience. It’s fascinating to get to come to the Pacific Playwrights Festival and hone two parts of what I do.”

For the moment, we’ll call Shahi a writer and introduce his work, The Brothers Play. The play is one of the selected readings for this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, the nationally recognized annual showcase of new playwriting talent May 3-5.

Directed by Knud Adams, The Brothers Play takes the Julianne Argyros Stage Friday, May 3, at 4 p.m. Shahi tells the semi-biographical story of two brothers on different life paths. Little brother makes a bundle in LA and just bought a ranch back home in Tucson. Big brother is a poet in New York… with his own reasons for coming back. As they struggle to reconnect, the brothers discover the ranch house isn’t the only thing in need of renovation.

Tagging Shahi as a writer is a safe bet, because it throws a big blanket over a vast array of his creative niches. He began writing poetry as a kid, using it as a coping mechanism to work through feelings of rejection. That segued into learning the drums and the keyboard (hence, the “musician” label), which segued back into being an actor and writer when he got to Carnegie Mellon University.

“I grew up wanting to be an actor. I grew up reading great plays and wanting to be on stage,” he said. “When I got to Carnegie Mellon, it was a one-in-a-billion chance I might pursue the idea of doing something else. But I love words. I’ve always loved words. I’ve always loved poetry and rap music was part of my youth. I loved reading the lyrics and trying to figure out how such complex stories came so quickly. That seemed magical to me. Language always resonated with me.”

When Shahi was at Carnegie Mellon, he got together with six other freshmen arts majors from all over the country. They started an impromptu writer’s group, a serendipitous meeting that led to writing songs, since all seven were musical ex-pats from high school bands.

That led to a collaboration on The Hunter and the Bear for the university’s student-run theatre festival—Playground. Written with music, movement and puppetry, The Hunter and the Bear was what Shahi called “a dark campfire story.” By any measure, it was a popular and a notable one for what followed later.

What followed was The Nightmare Story, which won the Overall Excellence Award at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival. The following year, the group went back-to-back, winning the Overall Excellence Award again for The Mountain Song. And they were still students at Carnegie Mellon.

What audiences were seeing was the genesis of PigPen Theatre Company, the perfect outlet for Shahi’s talents and the foundational outlet for him to write/act/direct/produce/compose/play and—yes—tell stories. PigPen Theater Company combines original music written and composed by the group with theatrical work that combines movement, music and puppetry. PigPen’s typical plays are original folk tales in the mode of The Hunter and the Bear, The Nightmare Story, The Mountain Song and The Old Man and the Old Moon, which audiences can see at Outside SCR this summer at Mission San Juan Capistrano

Broadway World described PigPen’s work as “Once meets Peter and the Starcatcher.”

You could throw in the British folk band Mumford & Sons as another comparison, because PigPen are not only produced playwrights, but recording artists. After their graduation, they were signed to a record contract after a music executive saw one of their presentations at Martha’s Vineyard. Their debut album, Bremen, drew comparisons to Mumford & Sons for its layered harmonies and rich instrumentation.

“Over the years, it snowballed,” Shahi said.

The snowball eventually included writing the musical adaptation for The Tale of Despereaux, born from Kate DiCamillo’s 2003 novel and subsequent film adaptation. That played The Old Globe and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, with Shahi and his cohorts starring as the various characters alongside Taylor Iman Jones and Eric Petersen. They also collaborated on direction with Marc Bruni.

The snowball picked up speed with their biggest score to date—writing the music and lyrics on the musical adaptation of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, which opened on Broadway last month, Shahi is still getting his brain around the project.

“It’s strange. It’s the biggest show we’ve done, but the smallest job we’ve had,” he said. “It’s interesting to be on Broadway. We usually put in a lot of work on our shows, because usually, we’re doing everything. But we got very fortunate to have a wonderful team around us. It’s very cool to have your music played by a Broadway orchestra every night.”

Now, Shahi will see The Brothers Play read at this year’s PPF. It followed his novel An Impossible Thing to Say and was inspired by real-life events.

Shahi was back in Tucson, living with his mother during the pandemic. His younger brother, Arten, who was working in venture capital in Los Angeles, texted to say he was thinking about buying a ranch in Arizona. That sent Shahi’s muses off and running.

“I’m unemployed and living in my mom’s house when I got this text,” he said. “I love my brother and we’re close, but it was a really clear moment that the choices we make during our late teens and early 20s have put us on two different paths, two different communities and two different socioeconomic classes. I realized it at that very moment.

“In real life, my existential crisis was averted. He didn’t buy the ranch or the house. But that stuck with me. Once I finished the novel, I wanted to challenge myself to write this play. I wrote many plays with PigPen, but nothing as me.”

Shahi was so inspired, he wrote the first draft in a month, something he said will never happen again.

“Ever since I got that text from my brother, a part of my brain was running this eventuality out,” he said. “What would have happened to me in my life if I didn’t have the career I have in the arts? If I wanted to do it and it wasn’t happening. My brother’s prosperity became my only outlet for security. That’s a scary outlook for artists.

“I’ve been very fortunate, but by no means am I as stable or as prosperous as I would have been if I put my talents somewhere else. Most artists who have done this are wholly capable of doing something else. That’s what I’m trying to explore.”

Go on this journey with Shahi, along with the other plays at this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival. Tickets are on sale and can be purchased online at SCR.orgor by calling SCR Ticket Services at (714) 708-5555. Don’t miss the chance to see tomorrow’s big hit today.


About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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