Coming from a line of Filipino revolutionaries, leadership is in the blood of Nina Lee Aquino

Award-winning Filipino-Canadian director, playwright and teacher Nina Lee Aquino has been appointed Artistic Director of English Theater at the National Arts Centre.

Aquino comes to the NAC after a decade of transformation at the helm of Factory Theatre, where she played a key role in evolving Toronto’s theater culture and leadership to be representative of the city’s diverse population .

She succeeds Jillian Keiley, who completes her 10-year term at the Ottawa Performing Arts Center in August.

In his new role at the NAC, Aquino intends to explore complex questions about Canadian identity: what it means to be a national theater company in a post-national world, what it means to be a nation in relation to Indigeneity (in collaboration with the NAC Indigenous Theater Unit), and Canada’s Place in the World and Canada’s Place of the World.

Above all, she looks forward to using her platform to amplify the voices of all Canadians, especially those who don’t often see themselves represented on stage.

“The journey I’m about to go through is to elevate as many relevant and important stories and voices as possible…and to continue to make our audiences better human beings as they step out of the theatre,” he said. she declared.

Aquino and Nigel Shawn Williams were named Factory Theater’s interim co-artistic directors in 2012, and she became sole artistic director in 2015 – the first woman of color to lead a theater with her own venue in Canada. At the time, the artistic direction of Toronto theaters was almost exclusively white, but this has changed in recent years with the appointment of Weyni Mengesha at Soulpepper Theater Company, Tanisha Taitt at Cahoots Theatre, Marjorie Chan at Theater Passe Muraille and, more recently, Mike Payette. at the Tarragon Theater.

Métis theater artist Matthew MacKenzie, whose award-winning play “Bears” was part of Factory’s 2018-19 season, called Aquino a trailblazer. “With the kind of programming that Nina has put together at Factory, I think you kind of see the water turning with the white monolith in Toronto and hopefully the rest of the country,” a- he declared. “And so it’s a natural step that she’s now leading the NAC.”

During his tenure at Factory, Aquino championed new Canadian playwriting and new stagings on plays considered modern Canadian classics. She has won numerous awards and accolades, including three Dora Awards for Best Direction. Since 2018, she has served as President of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, a member-driven organization that supports the practice of theater in Canada. She also devotes considerable time to mentoring and teaching, having recently been appointed Adjunct Professor in York University’s Department of Theater in 2020.

“I’d like to believe that I got this job (at the NAC) because of the things I was able to do and continue to do,” she told the Star. “The NAC is here to move me forward with a broader reach, a broader reach, additional support and additional resources.”

Marjorie Chan said Aquino always creates a safe and inclusive space for artists. The pair recently collaborated on Chan’s play “Lady Sunrise,” which Aquino directed for Factory’s 2019-20 season.

“I think people forget that at the heart of everything there has to be play and creativity,” Chan said. “Time and time again, in all of these theater companies, she created this space for the art to thrive.”

Filipino-Canadian actress Carolyn Fe echoed those sentiments. The two first worked together in 2005 on a production of the Aquino co-written play “Miss Orient (ed)” and in 2019 Aquino directed Fe in the Fringe show “Through the Bamboo.”

“Being led by her has been liberating. Her parameters are wide,” Fe said. “She lets the actor play within her parameters and slowly but surely, and quite comfortably, those parameters shrink so that her vision comes out.”

Aquino was a child musical theater performer who traveled abroad from an early age. She studied theater at the University of Guelph and the University of Toronto, co-founded fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theater in 2002 with Richard Lee, David Yee and Leon Aureus, and directed the Cahoots Theater from 2009 to 2013. before being asked to join Factory.

When asked what she was most proud of during her years at the factory, her answer was candid: “That I survived.”

Aquino and Williams took over during a turbulent time for the company: its board of directors had recently fired the company’s founder and creative director, Ken Gass, in a dispute over plans to renovate the aging premises of the company. ‘organization. The pair took on their roles as the theater faced boycotts, petitions and social media backlash calling for Gass’s reinstatement.

“Coming in at such a tumultuous time, where everyone was divided, where it was really ugly and messy, I felt like a kid going through a divorce,” she said. “There is no Hogwarts school for art directors. There’s a lot of trial and error, fumbling and being able to fail beautifully.

The tides began to turn in terms of critical reception to Factory’s output during its 2015-16 season, Aquino’s first as sole artistic director. Titled “The Naked Season,” it featured stripped down, non-traditional productions of six modern classic Canadian plays, reimagined by directors such as Peter Hinton-Davis (“Bombay Black”), Ravi Jain (“Salt-Water Moon”) and Aquino herself (“Banana Boys”).

There was a practical reason for Aquino to turn to existing works: the new pieces Factory was working on weren’t ready yet. “I had to stop the madness of developing plays in a rush, then putting them on our stages, then setting them up to fail. It didn’t do anyone any good,” she said.

Playwright David Yee remains one of Aquino’s closest associates. He said her leadership skills stemmed from her ability to respect the views of everyone she worked with: “The first and foremost rule of the room she leads is that everyone has a voice,” he said. said Yee. “Even when she’s called the visionary director that she is, she always stands by her team.”

When asked if she was destined for leadership, Aquino mentioned her lineage. Her uncle was Benigno Aquino Jr., the main opposition leader in the Philippines during martial law in the 1970s under Ferdinand Marcos. “As my mother would say, ‘It’s in your blood, coming from a line of revolutionaries,'” she said. “We can’t sit still and I think we’re just allergic to the status quo.”


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Thelma J. Longworth