Nina Lee Aquino

Nina Lee Aquino is a leading Filipina-Canadian director and dramaturge based in Toronto. She was founding Artistic Director of fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre, Artistic Director of Cahoots, and is currently Artistic Director of Factory Theatre. She is recipient of the Ken McDougall Award (2004), the Canada Council John Hirsch Prize (2008), and two Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Direction.

We asked Factory Theatre's artistic director Nina Lee Aquino about forging a leadership path in the theatre and teaching the next generation of stage performers.

As the first person to serve as artistic director for three theatre companies in Toronto, how do you feel you’ve helped pave the way for female leadership in arts organizations?

I don’t know if I’ve helped any. Really, all I’ve ever wanted to do was to make the communities that meant a great deal to me feel seen. I wanted to make them feel visible and put their voices and stories front and centre. That’s why I took on those positions – I saw them as doorways to that desire to make sure the often “othered,” marginalized voices had a valid artistic place in our theatre ecology. That was the calling and the purpose. I saw each company I got into as a chance to widen my reach – bigger doors meant I could bring more artists past the threshold.

If by doing this I became an inspiration for somebody else to follow suit, then that’s fantastic, but most of the time I don’t really think about that while I’m doing it. I just know that if I start it, and give it my best shot, I’ll have done something. What was once impossible, at least for me, became possible. And that seed of possibility that gets planted is the heart of the matter, for me.  Because when you can convince people that you can do it and then you do it well, then hopefully you’ve busted open something. You’ve left a small promise of change. And then you move on to the next thing. 

You are currently a faculty member in Humber’s Creative & Performing Arts program. What is your favourite part about teaching theatre to the next generation?

I love working with theatre students the most. Whenever I get a chance to teach or direct a student production, I always consider that to be an important pitstop in the game of life. I come out of these gigs with a renewed love for theatre and a vigour for the craft – my imagination gets a good workout and I’m reminded to be fearless in my art again.

Often the students are so hungry to learn, they’re really open and daring. I love the kind of vulnerability and courage they have about the work (especially when we’re working on a new play). At the same time, because it’s school, it’s a safe place for everyone (including me) to fail, make mistakes and go back to the drawing board. It’s okay for something to fail – but because you’re working with students, you want to show them that how you rise to the challenge and confront the obstacles is what really matters. It’s an environment that encourages you to do better – to be better.

How do you balance your creative work with your other roles of teaching and being Artistic Director at Factory Theatre?

There is no balance! I just can’t achieve it. No matter how hard I try, it just doesn’t work. Every day is different, and I just need to be able to respond to the various demands as they come and do everything I can to make it work. Or surrender. Or say no.

Having a supportive board and an amazing staff that believe in all the other kinds of work that you do helps. Having a village of family and friends that will have your back anytime you ask for it helps. Having a husband that doesn’t mind holding the fort when you’re not there helps. And having an astute, out-of-this-world 12-year-old child who understands and randomly texts you “I love you” throughout the day helps.

I know I’ve made a mistake or I’ve said yes to too many things when I’m not being my most authentic self in whatever task I’m doing. So I’ve been pretty good about saying no to offers and opportunities nowadays, and don’t feel much guilt or regret after. But balance? Nope.  

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?

I’m proud of all the plays I’ve directed, all the companies I’ve had the privilege to work for, and all the advocacy I’ve done on behalf of our theatre community so far.

But the proudest accomplishment in my career to date is more intangible than that. 

My proudest accomplishment is that I’m still surviving in these times; that I still have a lot of fight left in me to do this. With everything I read over social media, the news – the kind of leadership that’s ruling our world, the way our planet is dying… it’s easy to just check out and feel helpless.  And when you’re a woman of colour, the oppression hits you twice over. It’s hard and the struggle is real and every day something I read or experience reminds me of how small and invisible I am and how nothing I do is making any difference. And I just want to quit.

But you find the light – the levity in things, the promise that’ll it be okay and even better tomorrow, and you keep going. My proudest accomplishment is that, throughout all the chaos and darkness out there, I’ve been able to make what feels like the most meaningful theatre to me. I’m proud to have had amazing collaborators that have now become lifelong friends. I’m proud to have loving, rigorous mentors who continue to scrutinize my work and honestly tell me if I’m not being true to myself and my artistic principles.

I’m still here and my mission is clear – knowing that is my proudest accomplishment.

What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Margo Bindhardt and Rita Davies Award?

It’s a meaningful reminder to breathe, to take everything in – accomplishments and screw-ups. This little pocket of time allows me to look back at my history through a different lens: one that is more forgiving, generous, open and appreciative, to recognize how far I’ve come in the journey. When you’re too busy trying to walk the walk, you barely have time to look up and notice anything. Or you only notice the things you missed, or didn’t do, or did imperfectly. I try not to waste my energy doing that, but it’s in my nature to assess myself harshly – it’s a mental check to keep doing everything you can do in the best way you can do it.

When something is said out loud, publicly recognized at a larger scale, it just makes it a little bit more real than usual. It reaffirms that I’m doing something right.

But the nomination also becomes a more profound reminder of how much more work there is ahead, and how I can’t stop – I can’t afford to. I only really care about the work and the potential impact that it can make for our communities on the stage and off. So if this illuminates how passionate I am about theatre and how much I believe that it can change the world (if you let it) then, amazing, I’ll take it. It’s just really nice, and it’s precious fuel for the long road ahead.