EMU theatre professor Pirooz Aghssa directed this month’s production of “Spring Awakening”, and translated the script of last month’s production of “The Butterfly” from its original Persian. I sat down with Aghssa to ask how he got interested in theatre, about his love of teaching, and more.
Aghssa was born in Iran, and his family moved to New York City when he was 16. His parents were not artists, or even very interested in the arts themselves, but during his youth, Aghssa had encouragement and resources to discover things he was passionate about.
His parents had opera and musical theatre recordings at home, and he had numerous opportunities to see live performances. “A lot of international opera stars came through Iran, and so I got to see these world-class performers at a very young age, and it was very inspiring.”
But despite his love for opera, he didn’t really begin to learn to sing until he came to America.
“In Iran, if you do a recital or a show, you are a professional. In America, there are many more amateurs than there are professionals. It’s a great way to learn about the arts, being able to be an amateur and be able to do shows when you’re very young…. I learned by watching, not by doing. That was the difference between me and kids from here.”
His first trip to New York City had a lasting effect on him. “When I first went to New York, I wasn’t really into musicals, and in fact, my friends had to drag me to the first musical I saw there, which was ‘A Chorus Line’… and I walked into the theatre one person and came out another.”
With a few years of voice lessons in America under his belt, Aghssa went off to college, choosing the opera program at the University of Illinois. “(University of Illinois)…was very prestigious, and very good for me in some ways, because a lot of people there went on to sing at the Met… so you knew what it took to make it, just by listening to all the people around you. But in another sense it was just less personal… it was so big, if you wanted a professor’s time or advice, it really wasn’t possible, not like it is at EMU at all…. what it did was clarify the standards of what the profession was.”
When he decided to begin teaching, Aghssa’s approach was quite different from that of his own college professors. “I don’t think it was conscious on my part to say ‘oh, that’s the experience I had, I’m going to teach to counter that’, but I’m sure subconsciously that was part of the decision…. It certainly taught me what happens to a student when…. a teacher or a mentor is in any way absent or dismissive.”
Aghssa was the recipient of the Outstanding Teaching Award by the Alumni Organization at EMU in 2010.
“The students I have now are far more mature and focused than I was at their age.You deal with students as individuals. To be in front of a class in any capacity is a continuous process of opening your sensors and responding, rather than closing off and saying, ‘I know all the answers,’ because you don’t. It comes to you, or maybe you learn it from a student. The teaching relationship between a student and teacher is very circular. What I want from a student is to challenge me.”
Many people think that happiness in the arts is attained through fame. Aghssa has a different outlook.
“I think in order to be happy in the arts, you need to be more in love with the process of doing the work and less concerned with how it feels to your ego. When too much ego comes into it, it’s no longer a job.”
“When I was in grad school, my mentor said, ‘If you are truly dedicated to this art form, you will find your place in it.’ He wasn’t saying, ‘If you work ten hours a day’, or any of that. If you truly love what you’re doing, you’ll find your place, you’ll find a way to make it fulfilling.”