The theatre of Nina Lee Aquino

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Filipino-Canadian Nina Lee Aquino, co-artistic director of Toronto’s Factory Theatre,  nurtures the next generation of cultural minority theatre artists and fights to keep rabble-rousing theatre alive. 

Story and photo by  FEONA HEBRIO

Dramaturge, playwright and director Nina Lee Aquino is in a league of her own.

A pioneering Filipino-Canadian in the Toronto theatre community, she has been 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 theatre artists and leaders who reflect the vibrant diversity of Toronto.

In 2002, she founded fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre Company, which has developed and showcased the work of talented Asian-Canadian artists. She was, until recently, the artistic director of Cahoots Theatre Company.

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.

For her numerous contributions to the arts, Aquino has been recognized with 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, presented annually by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (2011).

Aquino, who has a master of arts degree in theatre from the University of Toronto, laments that showcasing Asian-Canadian talents remains a daunting task.  “It’s slow…It can get lonely.” But she soldiers on. She tells us why. Excerpts:

Q: You moved to Canada at an early age and yet you’re deeply rooted in Filipino culture. How did this happen?

A: I think it is important to me that in whatever work that I do, my identity as a Filipino-Canadian is evident. One of the reasons why I get hired is because of that identity. I believe that’s a good thing. I came to Canada when I was 17 and wanted to pursue theatre.

My identity is something I cannot hide, even if I dye my hair blonde, wear blue-eyed contacts or lighten my skin. It’s something that I carry with me and quite proudly.

I think as artists part of the job is to be courageous in whatever way you choose to express yourself, your message, who you are to the community at large. This is who I am, and part of that is being Filipino.

I still speak Filipino and some of the works that I’ve done as a director, have been for [the Filipino-Canadian theatre company] Carlos Bulosan Theatre. I work in plays that still do English and Filipino. I’m still very closely linked to the Filipino community as somebody who really cares genuinely for our stories. They are important. They need to be heard. They need to be visible in this Canadian artistic landscape.

Q: Tell us about a piece or work that you are most proud of?

A: In terms of my repertoire of Filipino-Canadian (plays), I would have to say People Power. It’s a play that I directed around year 2007 to 2008. The play also went to Montreal. It was produced by Carlos BulosanTheatre (CBT), written by the CBT Collectives –  Leon Aureus, Nadine Villacin, Christine Mangosing, Rose Cortez and more. It was such a rich and complex piece. It was a history of us, too, and who we are now.

…To bring that to life here in Canada, [and have it ] written by Filipino-Canadian artists and their perspectives on what happened during that really pivotal time in our country, was really rewarding.

[The play was about] those series of events that led to the People Power revolution, even though some of the members who wrote it weren’t necessarily there. It still got a huge impact on who we are today as Filipinos and some of the reasons why we’re here is because of that moment.

Directing the piece and being able to bring it to life, was one of the few times where in I felt I was really making new history for both Canada and the Philippines. It was critically acclaimed. Nicco Lorenzo Garcia [became] the first Filipino-Canadian to win a Dora Mavor Moore award as an outstanding actor in a production. The recognition and the acknowledgement of that in the Toronto theatre community was huge. It says to us that our work is valid. It says that our work is worth listening to. That’s all I really want. It is to enlighten and to transform communities, not just the Filipino-Canadian communities, but all the communities. To really be able to honour and listen to our stories because it’s just as important. It makes up who we are as a Canadian society.

I fondly look back to People Power, because my artistry as a director was growing and to be able to apply that to a very rich history, a very specific history and very bold story was great!

Q: What has the theatre industry been like for visible minorities? What has it been like for you?

A: It is a struggle and still continues to be a struggle. It is getting better, but it is not fast enough. If you’re impatient, yes, I think one can say that were still far off in terms of having our stages behind and on the stage, be really culturally diverse. We’re not there yet, but were doing the best that we can. Theatre companies such as Fu-GEN Asian- Canadian Theatre company, [which] I founded, Carlos Bulosan, Native Earth Performing Arts, Obsidian, Aluna and Alameda… that are ethno-specific are playing a pivotal role now in the Toronto theatre community… they are bringing voices of colour onto the stage.

As long as they keep working and doing what they are supposed to be doing, progress is being made, small as it is. But it is getting harder and harder because we are still living  in times when our work, especially works of colour is still young. Our works are being scrutinized and sometimes [we’re] even being punished for the kinds of work we choose to present onstage.

Photo by Alex Felipe

Photo by ALEX FELIPE

Not all of our works are safe and pleasant, it is not a sitcom. We are not interested in the happily ever after immigration stories. Some of our works are angry and bold. Our works are loud and dangerous.

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.

Q: Is it just the differences in structure? Can you elaborate?

A: A lot of it is different even in just the way we see things. It is not clean. People Power, for example, how do you capture a revolution by just doing one storyline? There are many ways to tell that story and sometimes, as Filipinos, we tell it through a song, through dance, through a combination of those,  through a different language. Our expression of drama is very different from a typical “Canadian” drama, which is quite clean and polished. Even for the other works that I’ve done or the latest play I have up right now, The Wanderers, [which] is from an Afghan-Canadian perspective,  again its not a clean A to Z kind of story. It’s circular. It’s all over the place, because that is just who we are as citizens of duality.

In terms of audiences and getting people to support for funding or sponsorship, we’re still having a hard time growing our artists of colour. Money-wise there is no support. We cannot get enough  support from Filipino businesses because we’re not [Filipino pop stars] Pops Fernandez or Martin Nievera Concert Live at Roy Thomson Hall. We’re also not Miss Saigon. We’re right there in the middle. We’re not quite the mega musicals and at the same time, we’re not the big Filipino celebrities who come and have a concert here. We are in the middle, and our expression is sometimes hard to take. It is not always beautiful. Oftentimes, we show how ugly it is. We show the darkness of our experiences.

Part of the struggle to really mobilize the minority is financial support and moral support from the communities. For People Power, the recognition of the name of the title and the artists involved, you’d think Filipinos would come and see it. Filipinos didn’t  go see it. The biggest champions of that production were still other audiences and other cultures. Filipinos didn’t come and see their story on stage. Why? Because they are not really familiar with us. Again, majority do not see theatre that is not Miss Saigon. That was really disheartening and that still continuously happens. 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.

We have a lot of talents! We have Romeo Candido. I can name you a laundry list of accomplished Filipino-Canadian theatre artists and we don’t get any press or anything from the Filipino communities and that’s the struggle. We basically had to build our own place.

Right now, the movers and shakers in the Filipino-Canadian communities [are] the older generation. They do not see the theatre that we make, because the theatre that we make is not familiar. For my play that premiered at The Factory, a year ago, we had to go to the Philippine Consulate and beg the consul general, “Please come see the work. Be our guest! Please rally the community. Let them know that our voice is on stage right now at one of the mid-size theatre companies in Toronto.”

Carlos Bulosan is going through a big [financial] transition. There’s no rally of support. No one from the Filipino community is asking, “Where are they?”  Nobody’s coming together and willing to help to preserve it even if it is “our” theatre company.

Oftentimes it’s really lonely, especially for Filipino-Canadian artists. We’re more celebrated outside of the community than we are inside.

Q: Have you noticed any changes over the years and have they been positive or negative?

A: In terms of the bigger picture, our artists being able to work and be successful in what they do, in general, it is pretty slow. In terms of support internally and within the community, nothing really has changed. I actually made a big stink about that on one of the Filipino-Canadian conferences. I was invited to speak on behalf of the Filipino theatre community and I was angry. I had to be courageous in expressing what all of us have been expressing on the  inside. A lot of elderly Filipinos reacted and defended themselves about it saying that they’ve put our press releases on their magazines.  That’s for the most part, and yet nobody comes to interview us. Nobody comes to see the work. I think it is not enough you put a carbon copy of something we’ve worked on their magazine. It’s saddening because we’re so good. The Filipino-Canadian theatre community is actually quite strong.

Q: Do you think it’s part of Filipino culture as well that we are not really exposed to theatre?

A: I don’t know. You can see it in that way, but I think when there’s success, unless it has anything to do with them directly, then they’re not up for it. When it is a much bigger thing or in terms of  Filipino pride, they’re not really interested. Just like what I said, when Lea Salonga hit it big everybody was just like, “Wow!” But a notch below that, it’s nothing. It is no longer a big deal.

I  started naming Filipino-Canadian artists who are doing well and do you recognize any of them.  No? Because you do not strive to! There are so many Filipino-Canadians who have broken through the mainstream [in theatre festivals like] Stratford – Karen Ancheta and Anthony Malarky. In film, like Romeo Candido, but it’s like nothing. The people are not invested and what they don’t realize is that we are carrying the flag, no matter what…At least show your kids to go see theatre, go see theatre that is a work of Filipino-Canadians.

I really find it as a wasted opportunity, but we’re still working on it. It’s hard and very lonely, [and] that’s why I don’t blame some of our artists who have given up. It’s hard enough to get funding in terms of Canadian government level, but not to get rally or support from your own communities, is even doubly hard.

Even our meeting today is so important. Why couldn’t I turn you down? Because if it is just to make the point across, then why not? We’re valuable too. We contribute to Canadian society.

Q: You’ve mentioned the need for parents to expose their kids to theatre, are you doing this in your family?

Even if my daughter does not get involved as a theatre artist, even if she doesn’t end up as a director or an actor, it’s really important that she goes to theatre like she goes to church. Theatre is part of her cultural life. I think that what’s missing in the newer generations right now. Allow them to have a cultural life: go to the museum, go to the theatre on a regular basis and subscribe to theatre companies.

There’s not enough of that pushing from the parents. If you go to European countries it is ingrained in their kids while they’re young. Again, its hard enough funding-wise that in our schools, the arts programs are the first ones to get shut… There’s little and little for field trips to go to see the theatre as classes.

A society that has a rich cultural life is a healthy and happy society. It is just another strong avenue for being able to illuminate and educate your kids. Who knows, one day it will allow them to dream and to be inspired?…[Working in theatre] is still a viable profession. It is still very important profession. We have a very integral function here in the country as artists.

 Q: Your parents must be really passionate and supportive hearing these things from you?

 A: My mom is a diplomat. My dad is a businessman. They didn’t necessarily push me but they were just  as passionate in their own fields as I am now with mine. I think what my parents really passed on to me was to be the best I choose to be. Their attitude was to be the best in whatever chosen calling you think you have. I’ll be forever indebted to them. I am so grateful that even though they didn’t understand why I chose theatre, they never asked why.

My mom was one of the first women diplomat and my dad was a self-starter. Both of them were extremely hardworking on their own professions and I think that’s what they really passed on to me.

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?

Q: You’ve won awards and recognition for the work you’ve contributed in the industry. What’s next for Nina Aquino? 

A: I see my role in the theatre community as a public servant. I am a leader, but I am there in order to serve. Right now, my priority is nurturing playwrights. That includes, Filipino-Canadian playwrights. We need more of them. It is my priority because that means once we have the stories, then the other artists can come –  the actors , directors and designers. But if there are no stories to tell, I can’t employ the artists that need to work on these pieces. Right now we are such in dire need of Filipino-Canadian playwrights, in particular, to tell the stories. The stories does not need to be Filipino-Canadian in content. It could be about anything. I think writers can write about anything as long as it’s a story worth telling. Inherently, no matter what  you write, your perspective as a Filipino-Canadian will always seep into the work, regardless.

NinaDirecting

In order for our communities to succeed, keep going and be visible, we need the storytellers. Because of the lack of support and passion from our communities, we are struggling a little bit in terms of trying to encourage and inspire young Filipinos to come forward with their stories or at least express themselves through theatre.

Carlos Bulosan Theatre and Kapisanan Philippines Centre, [are] doing their job and I’m trying to do my job but we can only do so much pushing. It is people like you then, who have a large platform to be able to reach other communities who don’t necessarily know who we are. You are capable of  encouraging them that the arts community is also a legitimate, valid, and valuable way of living.

Q: Do you currently offer programs or opportunities for aspiring artists?

We accept solicited and unsolicited scripts. They can check on the website and there is a process of doing it. There are other theatre companies – Carlos Bulosan, Kapisanan Philippines Centre and FuGEN, we all talk together… There are actually a lot of talented Filipino-Canadian writers that are in the program right now. So for anybody who’s interested, we are a Google away… It just takes courage. You have to have that courage to take that leap of faith for you to go and say, “This is where I want to be. This is how I want to express myself through theatre or as a designer.” It is courageous work to be an artist. Its a lot of acceptance and rejection. A lot of triumph and failure.

You’ll know in your heart whether you’re meant to be an artist. All I’m saying is, if you are or if there’s something in your gut that tells you that theatre is where you’re supposed to be, follow it and know that there is help and resources to go now. During our times there were none, that is why I formed FuGEN. I didn’t have a Filipino-Canadian mentor.

Q: If there’s someone out there contemplating on whether to pursue a career in theatre or writing, what’s the best take-away you can offer?

If you want to do theatre, do it because we need you. We need your stories. If you want to do theatre, do it because being a theatre artist is having an important role in Canada, not just in our own communities but in Canada. Art is important. It is an important vital function for our country… It is a way to express yourself. It’s a way to make our stories visible, important and heard. We need to be heard for we are part of this country…

The theatre that I like doing is the kind that bonds and starts a dialogue. Theatre can definitely change the world. I firmly believe in that, that is why I do what I’m doing. If you feel you can do that and be part of that, then do theatre…You’re coming into a community with people like me that can help and can push and encourage. There are support systems for young, inspired and talented artists of colour. Do it. Do it now!

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