Theatre: Nina Lee Aquino wins three prestigious awards

Nina Lee Aquino is the recipient of the 2019 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Direction. ANNE-MARIE KRYTIUK

Updated: July 20, 2019, 8:45 PM

Toronto, Ontario

Aquino believes theatre can change the world

By Ted Alcuitas

This year has been a big harvest for director Nina Lee Aquino, winning three major awards in theatre.

The life-long community activist has been recognized  for her leadership in the development of arts and culture.

Dramaturge, playwright and director Nina Lee Aquino won three major awards back to back :  the Margo Bindhardt and Rita Davies Cultural Leadership Award,  Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Direction and the Toronto Theatre Critics Award.

This is her third win  for Dora – in 2011  for  paper SERIES and in 2014 for Sultan’s of the Street.

The Bindhardt-Davies Award from the Toronto Arts Foundation celebrates creative cultural leadership in the development of arts and culture in Toronto and comes with a $10,000 prize.

The Dora Award from the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts is for her work in directing “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play” earlier this year, a coproduction by Obsidian Theatre and Nightwood Theatre.

The director of Factory Theatre in Toronto has a long and storied career in theatre beginning with her involvement with the Carlos Bulosan Theatre (CBT).

Own path

The daughter of a mother who was a diplomat and a businessman father, she moved to Canada when she was 17. She is the niece of 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 her famous uncle.

She started her path to theatre as an actor at a young age inspired by her older brother as she watches him play at school.

“I can do that, too,” she thought to herself and thus the journey begun.

She completed a degree in drama at the University of Guelph followed by a Masters in Theatre at the University of Toronto.

But her dream to become an actor almost got derailed when she got her first big rejection.

She was told by a university that she could not be an actor and she moved to another where she met Judith Thompson, her life-long mentor.

She told CBC’s Exhibitionist episode aired last November 2018 that it was Thompson’s advice that change her life.

Initially refusing to take up an offer for her to direct a play “because I am not a director,” Thompson told her:

“You can do it. If you still want to be an actor, you can be a competent actor..if you pursue this  you will be one of many artists trying to knock down that wall.”

“You can be that door not only for yourself but for the entire community.”


She became the founding artistic director of fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre in 2002, then the artistic director of Cahoots Theatre Projects, before becoming the artistic director of Factory Theatre in the early 2010s.

Aquino has also edited Canada’s first Asian-Canadian two-volume drama anthology, Love and Relasianships, and co-edited New Essays on Canadian Theatre, Volume One: Asian Canadian Theatre. She co-wrote the the play, Miss Orient(ed) and has had monologues published in various books.

Her numerous awards include the Ken McDougall Award, given to promising emerging directors (2004), The Canada Council John Hirsch Prize, which recognizes developing directors “who have demonstrated great potential for future excellence and exciting artistic vision” (2008), and Dora Mavor Moore Award for outstanding direction (2011).

Nina Lee Aquino receives the 2019 Bindhardt-Davies Award  from Toronto City Mayor John Tory.

“We’re more celebrated outside of the community than we are inside,” she told Rappler in an interview.

She laments that showcasing Asian-Canadian talents remains a daunting task. “It’s slow…It can get lonely.” But she soldiers on.

On winning the Bindhardt-Davies Award, she told Rappler that it is 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.

Excerpts from The Inquirer interview:

It takes a village

“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.”

Aquino believes theater is a way of “saying something about the state of where we currently live in and how we live our lives.”

“Yes, theater can a be a place of temporary escape, a sigh of relief, a stretch of time where we can laugh and momentarily forget the harsh, cruel realities — that’s is one of its more important functions for sure: entertainment

“But theater can also provoke, offer up, magnify, inspire, shake up, turn around, fight for, shift, fight against, rearrange, transform thoughts, ideas, truths, lies, preconceived notions, assumptions, prejudices, principles, values, feelings.”

When it comes to the range of her directing output, Aquino says, “I don’t do traditional Filipino folk dances or perform indigenous tribal music or present sarsuwelas and komedyas.”

Nevertheless, she notes that some of these Filipino performance forms have actually influenced some of her well-known theatrical works.

I am Filipino

“Some may even find my work not Filipino enough. But I am a Filipino. Look at me,” Aquino says clearly. “Whether or not I direct a show that has nothing to do with our Filipino-ness, my work is still Filipino. Period.

Activism and the power of theater

She recalls her own experiences working with Filipino Canadian theater company Carlos Bulosan Theatre.

“It was known as Carlos Bulosan Cultural Workshop back then. It was created in the early 1980s as a means to give voice to the anger, frustration, anxiety, pain that the Filipino Canadian community was going through at a time when they felt helpless, being far away from their home country that was going through political strife and turmoil.”

The group had been originally the cultural wing of the North America-wide Coalition Against the Marcos Dictatorship organization.

“Petitions, letters, protests were done, executed within the confines of their homes, offices and community centers. But ultimately, activism, the spirit of solidarity, the need to rise up and hope for a better future had to be shown through theater.

“This is how the community tried to save its country. A small, tiny gesture, yes, but even the smallest pebble can make the biggest ripples,” says Aquino.

For Filipino Canadians

“Why do I do what I do and why do I do it for the communities I serve, especially Filipino Canadians?

“To make the invisible, visible. To take on the small and big fights that exist in the larger theater community. To make sure that the list of artistic achievements that have shown us many ‘firsts’ grows into seconds and thirds and fourths.

“It’s about the work, it’s always been about the work, front and center. And our work cannot exist without you, the audience. We do this for you, for anybody who is willing to watch us, listen to what we have to say. And particularly for the Filipino Canadian theater artists, we do it for our people because we might just have something important to say about being part of it or a part from it.

“See our work. Talk about it. Love it, hate it, but talk about it with your friends. And then see our work again. And bring your mom and dad. Because when you do this, you help make the invisible—our work, our artists, us—visible.”Open your hearts and your imagination.


Aquino has been called a pioneering Filipino-Canadian in the Toronto theater community and  a formidable force for redefining multiculturalism in the arts.

Currently co-artistic director of the indie stage company, Factory Theatre, Aquino has made it a commitment to nurture future theater artists and leaders who reflect the vibrant diversity of Toronto.

In an interview with The Origami, Aquino lamented the lack of support of the Filipino community for her play, People Power.

“If there is a Filipino story onstage, we barely get press from the Filipino community. We barely got recognition when Nicco Lorenzo Garcia won the Dora Mavor Moore awards, he was barely even acknowledged in the newspaper.”

She deplores the “systemic racism” on how works by people of colour are looked at.

“Of course, the expectation of the mainstream which is still predominantly white is, “Why are you mad at us?”… There’s still systematic racism on how our works are looked at critically. Therefore, when that happens, audiences who read reviews don’t get interested. They don’t give us a chance. Also, a lot of our works do not follow the Western structure, like introduction, conflict and climax. It’s not clean. That is not who we are. Our ways of thinking is not the same as the white man’s way of thinking”.


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