Afsaneh Aayani Manifests ‘Theater For All’

If you saw Innominate by Afsaneh Aayani at Catastrophic Theatre, you might think you know who Aayani is. You would be right and wrong at the same time.

I met her for the first time a few days after seeing Innominate. I knew that the person I was meeting wouldn’t be the person who played her in the performance, but I witnessed Innominate unfold deeply personal parts of her story just the week before. I wasn’t sure who to expect.

The real Aayani warmly welcomed me into her home studio, filled with foam puppets and masks and rolls of fabric, and more that my brain couldn’t even process. It is a color and texture explosion. She told me about her life growing up in Tehran, Iran, and how she knew from the age of eight that she wanted to pursue theater, even though her family was against it. When she got a full scholarship to study theater at a top tier university in Tehran, they relented.

“At first I thought I would study acting, but I quickly realized I wasn’t very good at it,” she said. A student in her final year invited Aayani to work on her puppet show and she fell in love. “It was everything I wanted in one medium. Puppetry is my passion and my love. I discovered I could express myself in it. Puppets are a safe place to be, because it’s communal and a group effort. There’s so much support.”

Aayani graduated with a degree in puppetry and began to work as a puppeteer and voice actress for both theater and television, jobs that allowed her to travel internationally and see the world. She dreamed of moving to the US, even as a teenager, partially motivated by visions of winning Tonys and Oscars, but also driven by unrest and violence at home. “One day, while watching the news,” she said, “I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It felt like someone was holding my heart and squeezing it.”

The opening of Innominate memorializes one of Aayani’s classmates at university who was killed by military violence while at school. She didn’t want that for herself. She applied for a visa while working in Poland and went home to pack. She arrived in the US in 2012, by herself and with only two suitcases, leaving behind her studio, her supplies, her practice, her job, but also her family, friends, loved ones, and the violence of daily life in Tehran. She stayed with an uncle until she found work with a puppet company in Portland, Oregon. But Portland proved to be too small, wet, and chilly for Aayani and she began to cast her net wider. She looked for a bigger and more affordable city, in a warmer climate, and one that was friendly to theater. She landed in Houston, TX.

“I have seen war, multiple revolutions,” she said, “but that’s in the past.” Aayani began work with Houston Grand Opera on their Opera To Go shows and did scenic design and prop work for Landing Theater, AD Players, The Rec Room, Theater Under The Stars, and more. “I never stopped doing theater. I had my day job, but at night, I would work on theater.”

Three years after moving to Houston, Aayani entered the MFA program at University of Houston’s School of Theatre and Dance, studying scenic design.

“I was drawn to scenic design because most designers don’t know how to design for puppet shows. Puppetry is such a specific genre of theater with its own requirements. If you don’t have that particular experience, it can be very challenging for designers to bring forward both an appealing and practical set. I hoped that through becoming a scenic designer myself that I could do some good for my community of puppeteers.”

Innominate started out as Aayani’s final capstone project for her MFA, to be completed in the Spring of 2020. It began as a 30-minute dance show, a collaboration with two other classmates. It was written, design had begun, and the team was assembled. Then COVID-19 spread like wildfire and everyone’s lives changed. UH announced classes for the next week would be virtual, which turned into two weeks, and then the rest of the semester. Aayani never returned to class, never walked for graduation, and her diploma was mailed to her. Innominate was put on indefinite hold.

In the summer of 2020, even more tragedy struck when Aayani’s brother passed away due to COVID-19. “I wasn’t willing to put on the show even if the pandemic wasn’t happening. I wasn’t in the right headspace. I wasn’t even in this world.”

Eventually, Aayani was hired as an assistant scenic designer at the Alley Theatre. She joined the Catastrophic Theatre’s drama squad. She designs and constructs puppets in her studio for projects all over the US. “I’m a freelance artist, so I work with everyone in town. I like it that way, because I get bored easily.. I can’t just work on one thing, I have to do everything at once.”

Listening to her talk about her work during a time when it seemed like the whole world was shutting down, that is evident. And Innominate was still simmering. In a city where much of the theater caters to upper class, standard loving audiences, Aayani envisioned something different.

“Performance art has a special place in my heart and is the kind of theater I love to create, “ she said. “Since I have the platform and connections, this felt like a great way to create a type of theater that remains relatively sparse in Houston at the moment.”

She began to wake up in the middle of the night with new ideas and jotted them down in the notes app on her phone. She rewrote the script and sent it to Tamarie Cooper at Catastrophic Theatre. In the summer of 2021, Catastrophic asked if they could produce Innominate, which Aayani said was “a dream come true.”

Innominate has been a healing process for everybody involved. The cast has people who have lost someone, or who are immigrants or who are the children of immigrants. It’s a true ensemble show made with love.” Innominate didn’t end up being the capstone to Aayani’s MFA, but perhaps it could provide a different type of closure on a painful chapter.

But of course, there are always several irons in the fire. Aayani’s next puppet show is The Moonlit Princess opening Aug. 27th at Rec Room Arts. It’s a family show for kids and their parents based on a Persian fairy tale. The show is funded through the Houston Arts Alliance and tickets are pay-what-you-can because Aayani wants to help people see theater who don’t normally have the opportunity.

“Many of the theater tickets in town are still pretty expensive,” she says. “So buying tickets for your whole family can really be a financial burden just for the opportunity to interact with the arts. In my home country, the saying ‘theater for all’ is very popular and is taken to heart by the whole community. I truly believe that theater is just as important as food: in the same way food feeds the body, theater feeds the soul, I want to bring that mindset to The Moonlit Princess and make sure it is accessible for everyone.”

Aayani says The Moonlit Princess will have lots of music, singing, puppets and people. “I grew up with this story and it was the first full-on production that I saw when I was six. That’s when I fell in love with theater, I still remember everything about that show. Maybe I can do the same for someone else.”