We had the good fortune of connecting with Afsaneh Aayani and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Afsaneh, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I take a lot of risks in my life, and I’m surrounded by people who also like to take risks. When I began my career 15 years ago I made a big change going from graphic design to puppetry, and a lot of people told me it wasn’t a safe choice and they were right. It wasn’t. But it was the best choice to make for me because it shaped me into the person I am today. All the growth, the travel, exploring the world wouldn’t have happened without that decision. I get a rush from making risky decisions, and the stress and adrenaline that comes with it. Leaving my home country and the career I had built to come to the U.S. absolutely shaped my future and I was scared, but that’s part of what excited me to do it. Not to say you should do anything and everything of course — there are some things you can’t take back — but for the most part I don’t worry about it too much. We only get to live this life once, and if you really want something, it’s worth trying for it no matter how crazy it may seem.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Every artist has their own journey which shapes the final work you see, and very, very few artists have an “easy” path. My journey has been, and will continue to be, a story of never getting too comfortable with where I am or what I have achieved. I began dreaming about art and performance since I was a very young girl, and I’ve had to prove myself over and over again to family, friends, and coworkers to keep moving forward. That passion has changed shape over time, but those experiences shaped my work into what it is today. When I was 17, Peter Schumann visited my country and I saw him perform his puppet show, and things were never the same for me. That performance lit a fire inside of me which moved me to study puppetry in college, perform internationally, and build all the skills and experiences that would shape my artwork for years to come. Through puppetry, I became a director, a designer, a puppet maker, and much more than I originally was. Specifically, I was drawn to scenic design which led to the huge step of leaving my home country to come to the U.S. to pursue an MFA in scenic design, and ultimately make a name for myself here — including recently winning the USITT Young Designers Scenic Award. Of course I worked very hard and gave it my all, but none of these choices were necessarily “safe.” If a few details had been different along the way there’s always a chance that things could have turned out very differently for me.
Equally as important to me is being true to myself in my art. I’m a dreamer and I like working with big concepts, so if, for instance, I know we need a window for a design, I don’t just draw a window. I come up with something totally different and it may or may not connect with the audience. When you’ve seen enough shows and designs, you can always make a decision that you know the audience will “like,” but why not create something that the audience has never seen before? If we are going to put out the same thing people are already seeing on TV or in movies or in other shows, then why are we doing it? Creating a new experience for the audience can be a magical thing and it’s not always going to work out. However, I believe if you don’t weave in some part of yourself into your work, you are doing a disservice to yourself and to your audience. For me, my art comes from my background and how I see the world and that makes what I create different than anyone else’s creations. Sometimes I might have my head in the clouds or maybe I’m unrealistic, but that’s what makes me, me. The only way to know if a concept, material, or design will work is by trying it. It may bring discomfort with it, but also, hopefully, something singular that isn’t replicated anywhere else in the world. I have many years of art left in me, and I hope to keep challenging myself and that I leave my footprint in this world.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Since my best friend would be coming from another country, there would be so much to share with her! Right now would be a little different of course because of the coronavirus pandemic, but maybe by the time my best friend comes, we can be closer to enjoying everything Houston has to offer. We all know that Houston has absolutely amazing food and I think our first dinner would have to be at Potente which is my favorite place. Past that there are so many good options, but we would have to include Rudy’s for some Texas barbeque, Garson for some good Persian food, Bluewater Seafood for crawfish, seafood, and great drinks, and Sam’s Boat for a more relaxed, fun meal. Oh, and of course Lupe Tortilla for some outstanding Tex-Mex! I’m not too much of a bar person, but I have recently discovered Light Years Bar which has great wine and cheese plates, and we could spend an afternoon there. Of course, there is no end to entertainment options and we would have to stop by a few of my favorite places including Moody Gardens and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Hopefully we would get lucky and have something going on at Houston Grand Opera (*hint, hint. It’s a dream of mine to design at the Opera) and Houston Ballet. I also love to dance and would have loved to take her to Wild West, which unfortunately just closed, so we would need to find another place. The nice thing about Houston is that there are many, many more places to see, dine, enjoy that it makes it hard to choose just a few things. Even though I’ve been living here for years, I still haven’t experienced all the city has to offer.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Absolutely! The list of people who deserve a shoutout is a long, long list but I’ll do my best to keep it brief. The first group of people are all my family, friends, and mentors back home in Iran. I spent the first 25 years of life there so I owe a lot to all the people who supported me in the first phase of my life. My family has been wonderful and supported me as I explore my passion for art. My friends in Iran are some of the best friends I have and we still talk today. While my artist friends from back home are extraordinarily talented, my non-artist friends also played such a big part in helping me to where I am today. I also had an amazing mentor that was my biggest fan and truly wanted to see me succeed. He had such a big impact on the artist I’ve become. The second group of people, of course, are all the new people I’ve met in the U.S.! Since I moved here, I found and married my husband who has truly been there with me every step of the way. I’ve worked closely with a whole new set of artists as well as non-artist friends who are wonderful. You all know who you are! Also, a shoutout to the Houston theater scene. Even though I was a foreigner, it has made me feel welcome here in Houston. I’m very thankful for all the people around the world who have helped to shape me, and I know will always have my back.
Pin Lim, Paige Willson, Afsaneh Aayani