Canada Takes the StagePublished on April 25, 2022

Photo by: Dahlia Katz

Newly appointed Artistic Director of NAC English Theatre, Nina Lee Aquino, knew theatre was her passion from a young age, as a musical performer in the Philippines.

Her supportive parents taught her humility and ambition which helped lay the foundation for her current success. Nina’s focus is modern classic Canadian plays, and she strongly advocates for BIPOC voices. She studied theatre at the University of Guelph and the University of Toronto. In 2002 Nina co-founded fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre, ran Cahoots Theatre from 2009 to 2013, and joined Factory Theatre in Toronto in 2015 where she is concluding a ten-year run as the first woman of color in the role of Artistic Director. In 2018 Nina was appointed President of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres. She has taught and directed at various universities as well as the National Theatre School. Nina has earned three Best Director Dora Awards, Canada Council for the Arts John Hirsch Prize, and the Toronto Theatre Critics’ Award. Being at the helm of Canada’s national theatre she hopes her leadership, vision, and imagination will set the stage to showcase even more Canadian stories to a wider audience with her creative and powerful productions.

Are you excited to come to Ottawa with your new position? As a daughter of a diplomat—a diplobrat—change and adventure is something I understand. I don’t think of it as a move from Toronto but what this national institution can do to expand my scope and reach in contributing to making Canada a better place to live in. My daughter told me you are not really leaving Toronto; you are taking a step back so that you can give the theatre community a bigger hug. That image seared in my mind. It is my goal to make Canadian theatre richer and I think the NAC can provide me with that.

What pressures are you are feeling with this transition? The pressure of perfection. My colleagues, peers, and the audience must understand that this is a process and like any process, we must value progress over perfection. Things will not change overnight, but once I understand the lay of the land and the strengths and weaknesses, I can more comfortably roll up my sleeves and get to work. We need to look at the big picture and be evaluated for having made a difference not only in my first year but five to ten years from now.

Why is it important to promote and highlight Canadian theatre? Canadians need to keep exploring and redefining what Canada means to them. I keep coming back to the word National in NAC. Canadian identity is ever shifting and evolving. In presenting our works we are going to be able to track where Canada’s place is in the world, what we think of the world, what the world thinks about us and where is the place of the world in Canada. Theatre is one of the greatest tools for us to check in on each other and ourselves. What we see on stage are perspectives of what people think, of where humanity and society are at. It is important to feature Canadian works but also have a global point of view by initiating cultural collaborations with other countries. To ask what Canada means to them. We will learn a lot from that to improve the image we are projecting to the world.

What are the qualities that a theatre director needs to be successful? Swagger or confidence in knowing and in not knowing.  After doing this for twenty years I am only as good as the team I put together. I can only be my best self by believing in myself, being honest and authentic.  How you direct is unique to you. That you are not measuring yourself up against other directors and how they do things. A sense of humour, laughter, and knowing not to take myself too seriously is important and gets me through the most stressful of times. 

Where do you see yourself in five years? The NAC was on my vision board and five years from now I hope to still be there making sure Canadian theatre is alive and kicking. Post-NAC, my end game is to be involved with theatre training institutions across Canada. I have amassed all this experience and the idea of mentoring, teaching, and giving back is something that I vowed to myself that one day, if I had the power to do so, I would. To talk about the future of Canadian theatre, we need to target the future of Canadian theatre artists, lay the foundation right from the beginning and support and encourage young emerging artists.

Vera Cody

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