Alumni Q&A: Pia Shah

Pia Shah

The School of Dramatic Arts briefly caught up with alum Pia Shah MFA ’13 for our Q&A series highlighting the accomplishments of the alumni of the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

About the alum

On stage, Pia Shah most recently appeared at South Coast Repertory in last season’s NewSCRipts reading of Origin Story, Pacific Playwrights Festival’s House of Joy and in the full production of Orange. Other new works include The Fit (Kansas City Repertory); Basketcases (Seattle Repertory); Dry Land (Ojai Playwrights Conference); Wild Blue (The Theatre @ Boston Court); Sweet Home (Circle X Theatre Company); Body Politic (Goddard College); Noms de Guerre (Pasadena Playhouse); and A Nice Indian Boy (East West Players).

Film/TV credits include Tone-Dear, Untld. Drake Doremus Project, Dirty John, Single Parents, Pearson, Good Trouble, Room 104, Planes, 8 X 10 Tasveer (Bollywood), Grey’s Anatomy, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Mercy, The Wonderful Maladys and Futurestates.

She co-wrote the stoner buddy comedy feature film Grass, which won Best Narrative Feature at the Austin Asian American Film Festival, and a nomination for Best Actress at the Los Angeles Pacific Asian American Film Festival, and is currently streaming on Netflix.

SDA: What has it been like since graduating?
Shah: It’s been an exciting time, discovering the realities of working and auditioning in Los Angeles. Driving in rush hour traffic to appointments is a whole new challenge and takes a while to get used to!

SDA: Tell us about what you’re working on now.
Shah: I just finished working on a TV show called Good Trouble and I shot an episode of season 2 of the Duplass Brothers’ anthology series, ROOM 104 that is now streaming on HBO.

SDA: How have your experiences and studies influenced your acting career?
Shah: Every project and role is different and although I go a lot off of instinct and life experience, if there is something that I don’t have an immediate feel for, I know I have the experience of having done it or something in the ballpark because I was stretched in class. I played a Cardinal in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford, directed by Andy Robinson, in our three-play repertory. That covers a lot of ground!

SDA: What was the most challenging project you’ve worked on so far?
Shah: I played a young lady on the spectrum in a play called Orange at South Coast Repertory. It was my first time carrying a play and I had been involved in several workshops of it over a period of three years. A lot of my communication was non verbal, or short direct sentences, I couldn’t reveal much inner life through expression and yet I was on stage the entire play. As a very emotional person in real life, that was a huge challenge — to feel it all but show almost nothing. I loved working with Aditi Kapil, the playwright, who has a very poetic way of looking at the world that is also humorous and unsentimental. She’s now writing on American Gods. Also, it was a very moving experience to meet the actual young lady the play was based on after one of my performances. I felt like I was looking into a mirror.

SDA: How about the most exciting?
Shah: This is gonna sound funny but I shot a national commercial for Chrysler last year with an amazing director, Jordan Brady, and it also starred Kathryn Hahn who is pretty much my favorite because she can do comedy, drama, classical work, whatever you throw at her and she is not afraid to be messy, real and completely truthful and authentic vs. playing an idea or having an image to control or caring about what she looks like, which is so boring to me. I was ecstatic to get to improvise with her but, alas, the way the shoot was structured, we never got to actually meet and we had to improvise with marks instead — the realities of shooting! But I have faith we’ll meet another time!

SDA: Was there a class or professor at SDA that was particularly meaningful or influential?
Shah: Natsuko Ohama is a genius who taught me not to be afraid of classical work or projects that were not written for actors of color specifically. That we all can inhabit the essence of any person who has lived at any point in time in history — that each of contains inside of us the DNA, the knowledge, of how to step into anyone else’s shoes. She taught me courage.

SDA: How would you describe your time in the MFA Acting program?
Shah: Invigorating, satisfying, maddening! You learn how to love and respect the work and the beauty of ensemble above all else.

SDA: What was your most rewarding experience at USC?
Shah: I got to collaborate with David Bridel and my classmates on a devised piece we all conceived together based on an article in The New Yorker about a doctor who was accused of killing her husband in order to gain custody of their young daughter. We showed the courtroom drama through two different lenses and explored how so much of truth is elusive — subject to perception, bias and spin. My classmate Jered Hobbs played both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer. At intermission, we flipped the switch and I went from guilty to innocent. It was thrilling.

SDA: Do you keep in touch with others from the program? Have you collaborated together since graduating?
Shah: Life gets so busy and our schedules are all so dynamic and ever shifting — but whenever I see my classmates, it’s like no time has passed. It’s impossible to spend that kind of intense time together and not share very deep bonds. You come from all walks of life. And despite that, you find that you share a deep desire be seen, heard and to express what it is to be human.

SDA: Any thing else you’d like to add?
Shah: You can find me @piajune on Instagram and Twitter!