Nina Lee Aquino first Filipina and woman of colour to head Canada’s English Theatre

Updated: January 13, 2022, 10:11 A.M.

Ottawa

Historic appointment

Breaking glass ceilings in her career 

Opinion

Teodoro ‘Ted’ Alcuitas

An outspoken and fierce advocate for diversity in theatre has been appointed to head Canada’s national theatre organization – the first Filipina-Canadian and first woman of colour to assume the position.

Acclaimed theatre maker Nina Lee Aquino has been appointed artistic director of the The National Arts Centre (NAC), a historic first for the country’s bilingual, multi-disciplinary home for the performing arts. Aquino will assume the position in August 29. The former artistic director of Toronto’s Factory Theatre will take over the NAC job from Jillian Keiley when her decade-long term concludes in August.

The trailblazing 44-year-old mother whose lineage goes back to the Aquino political family in the Philippines, has a long and storied career in theatre starting with the activist Carlos Bulosan Theatre in Toronto. With Nadine Villasin, she co-wrote Miss Orient(ed) (Carlos Bulosan Theatre 2003, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia), a comedy about a beauty pageant set in the Philippines, which satirizes the idealization of Western standards of attractiveness. In January 2013, her examination of her own family history and the violent politics of the Philippines, Every Letter Counts opened at Factory Theatre (dir. Nigel Shawn Williams).

Aquino plays herself in .’Every Letter Counts’

She is related to the late Senator Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino, Sr. who’s assassination in 1983 at the hands of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos led to the People Power Revolution in 1986.

She told the Ottawa Citizen in an interview that she will continue to increase diversity and representation during her tenure at the NAC.

“By virtue of being the first woman of colour to be appointed to this job, I think that’s a given. Regardless of the kinds of programming and collaboration, it will be filtered through my artistic lens and my lens is everything that makes up who I am and what I identify with. Which is, I’m a Filipino-Canadian citizen. I’m a woman of colour. I’m part of, and identify with, several communities that have been historically excluded. My whole artistic path leading up to my appointment at the NAC has been about that. It’s been about diversifying voices and including the historically excluded communities. It’s about making the invisible visible. It’s something that’s not going to change. It’s not a mandate, it’s just who I am. ”

Considered one of the city’s finest directors, she has been credited as doing more than any artistic director could have have done to shepherd Toronto theatre into the present while at the helm Factory Theatre.

“In terms of who I am as a Filipino. Who else can I be? Especially in a country like Canada, I have the opportunity to be both, then why not?” she told Rappler.

A theatre family

Aquino with husband Richard. (Photo: NOW Magazine)

Married to Richard Lee who is also an actor with three Dora awards to his credit, the couple raises their 15-year-old daughter Eponine, who is a theatre actress. Richard divides his time among acting, producing, fight directing and martial arts. In addition, he’s a sound designer, most recently for Obsidian.

“We’re delighted to welcome Nina Lee Aquino, a leading figure in Canadian theatre who has pushed its boundaries throughout her career,” said Christopher Deacon, President and CEO of the National Arts Centre. “Nina is a leader in developing new plays a champion of writers and a guiding light for emerging theatre talent. As one of the country’s finest directors, Nina has directed countless memorable productions and used her platform to create space for diverse voices on Canadian stages. The NAC is fortunate to be able to welcome this extraordinary artist and inspirer at the peak of her powers.”

The daughter of a mother who was a diplomat and a businessman father, she moved to Canada when she was 17. She is related to Ninoy Aquino whom she briefly met as a young child in Texas before his ill-fated return to the Philippines. Her play ‘Every Letter Counts’ is a look at the famous Aquino.

“The NAC that I dream of is a creative catalyst for change and transformation,” Aquino said in a news release.

“It is the place where artists and audiences constantly interrogate and explore what Canada’s place is in the world and what the rest of the world’s place is in Canada.”

Aquino is an award-winning Filipino-Canadian director, dramaturg and teacher who has advocated tirelessly for the representation and flourishing of IBPoC voices in Canadian theatre.

Aquino ended her transformative tenure as Artistic Director of Toronto’s Factory Theatre in 2021. Over the course of 10 seasons, she programmed bold and imaginative re-interpretations of classic Canadian plays and secured a reputation as a leader in developing new plays, and as a champion of writers. A highly sought-after mentor, she has offered steadfast support for nurturing and training the next generation of theatre artists.

Aquino says she is  “thrilled and deeply honoured to be named the new Artistic Director of NAC English Theatre,”  adding that she sees her appointment as “a continuation of the rich legacy of Artistic Directors who came before me and presented stories about the complexity of contemporary Canada. Theatre has been pivoting, shifting and adapting long before this current moment. The idea of this country – that is the Canadian experience, citizenship, identity – is continually evolving, perpetually being defined and re-defined through the lenses of our artistic work. The NAC that I dream of is a creative catalyst for change and transformation. It is the place where artists and audiences constantly interrogate and explore what Canada’s place is in the world and what the rest of the world’s place is in Canada. I’m looking forward to nurturing and serving a multitude of Canadian stories; embracing new, future-facing theatrical forms; harnessing the creative potential that new technology has to offer and remaining fearless in reimagining our classics and deconstructing our traditional ways of storytelling.”

Factory Theatre credits her for helping to launch the careers of more than 100 of Canada’s finest artists, transforming the landscape of Canadian theatre.

Aquino’s accomplishments

Aquino was the Founding Artistic Director of fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company and former Artistic Director of Cahoots Theatre. She has directed world premieres and revivals at theatres across the country and has won a multitude of awards including the Ken McDougall Award, the Canada Council for the Arts John Hirsch Prize, the Margo Bindhart and Rita Davies Cultural Leadership Award, as well as a Toronto Theatre Critics Award and Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Direction for School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play (Obsidian Theatre), in addition to two Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Sultans of the Street (Young People’s Theatre) and paper SERIES (Cahoots Theatre). During her tenure, Factory cemented its reputation as a national leader for the development of new work and emerged as a leading training ground for the next generation of diverse Canadian theatre creators.

In addition to serving as the Founding Artistic Director of fu-GEN Asian Canadian theatre company, Nina Lee Aquino is credited with a string of firsts in Asian Canadian theatre: she organized the first Asian Canadian theatre conference; she edited the first (two-volume) Asian Canadian play anthology, and she co-edited the first (award-winning) book on Asian Canadian theatre.

She is currently President of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres.

Over 10 seasons at Factory Theatre, Nina programmed world premiere and Toronto premiere productions from playwrights such as David Yee, Anusree Roy, Marjorie Chan, Yvette Nolan, Kat Sandler, and Jeff Ho, among others; programmed bold and imaginative re-interpretations of classic Canadian plays from Judith Thompson, Colleen Wagner, David French, Linda Griffiths, Daniel MacIvor, Anosh Irani, and Claudia Dey. She fostered relationships with some of the best theatre companies from across the country and brought their productions to Factory Theatre.

Following the March 2020 pandemic shutdown, Aquino fully embraced the new digital theatre medium, commissioning and directing new digital and audio theatrical works at Factory and with post-secondary institutions and festivals. Notable digital works include House: The Isolation Version by Daniel MacIvor (Factory Theatre), acts of faith by David Yee (Factory Theatre), Defined by Bone by Mayumi Lashbrook (CanAsian Dance), rabbit hole by David Yee (Ryerson University), and You Can’t Get There From Here, an audio drama series (Factory Theatre).

Aquino co-wrote Miss Orient(ed) and her monologues have been published in Beyond the Pale (edited by Yvette Nolan) and She Speaks (edited by Judith Thompson).

A mentor

Aquino has taught and directed at educational institutions such as Humber College, University of Guelph, University of Toronto Mississauga-Sheridan College, Ryerson University, York University, and the National Theatre School. She is an honorary member of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research and was recently appointed Adjunct Professor at York University’s Department of Theatre. Her leadership has extended into mentoring theatre students and emerging artists. She was also the 2019 winner of the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Margo Bindhart.

 The National Arts Centre (NAC) is Canada’s bilingual, multi-disciplinary home for the performing arts. The NAC presents, creates, produces, and co-produces performing arts programming in various streams—the NAC Orchestra, Dance, English Theatre, French Theatre, Indigenous Theatre, and Popular Music and Variety—and nurtures the next generation of audiences and artists from across Canada. The NAC is located in the National Capital Region on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation.

Related reading:

Theatre: Nina Lee Aquino wins three prestigious awards

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