As Factory Theatre marks 50 years, the ongoing fight for inclusivity on the Canadian stage blazes on
A (brutally) honest conversation with Nina Lee Aquino about the past, present and future of Canadian theatre
This season, Toronto's Factory Theatre celebrates 50 years as a company. From the onset, the company has established themselves as leaders for new Canadian play development, and their early commitment to Canadian work has helped shape the trajectory of drama in this country. Walking into my interview with current artistic director Nina Lee Aquino, I had planned to touch on 50 years of Factory, looking at both its storied history and the direction the artist has set for the company during her tenure. Instead, our chat was a frank and illuminating conversation about the brutal realities of fighting for representation in Canadian theatre.
Founded by Ken Gass and Frank Trotz in 1970, Factory Theatre has championed work by authors such as George F. Walker and Thomson Highway; more recently, the theatre has programmed hits from Anusree Roy and Kat Sandler. Under Aquino — an esteemed director, dramaturge, and playwright — Factory has recently put emphasis on the creation of theatre from underrepresented voices, giving opportunities to BlPOC artists and putting women at the forefront of the company's creative endeavours. To celebrate the 50th anniversary, this year Aquino has programmed a season that features reimaginings of company classics Trout Stanley and House, while also celebrating work from playwrights across the country. Currently Aquino is directing Factory's latest output, the world premiere of Marjorie Chan's Lady Sunrise, a show examining social climbing and social decay in Vancouver's Asian Canadian community.
Aquino's first experience with Factory came in 2001 while she was still an undergraduate at the University of Guelph. She directed a production of Betty Quan's Mother Tongue that caused infighting at the school. There weren't enough people of colour to play the roles within the department, and some at the program worried telling an Asian story might be alienating to the mostly white audience. But Aquino was adamant to put on the play and pushed to make everything work.
"When I did Mother Tongue, that was the first playwright of colour ever produced in that educational setting. That was huge for me as an emerging director but also for the school itself," she says. "Later, I found out Factory was going to produce their own version of the show. It was suggested that I meet with [the show's director] Jim Warren to see if there were any opportunities to learn from him, or for him to learn from me because I did it first."
While Warren was kind to offer his time, it was clear there wasn't much interest in Aquino's opinion on the show, despite her familiarity with the subject matter both culturally and as an artist. She wondered if her work would ever belong at a place like Factory. A few years later, while studying for her Masters at the University of Toronto, she was assigned to the theatre as a part of her curriculum. The experience left a lot to be desired.
"It wasn't going to be my home just yet," she says. "When I was taking my Masters, I realized that Asian Canadian artists were very much on the periphery. That meant my work was going to be on the periphery. Factory wasn't something I aspired to because I automatically assumed I wouldn't be welcomed; I was just there to learn and absorb."
That was one of the reasons she was so surprised to be offered a temporary job after her studies finished. The company got a grant to bring Aquino on as an intern dramaturge focusing on the CrossCurrents Festival, which highlighted theatre from minorities. She excelled in the position, helping hone scripts and offering suggestions to playwrights for improving their work. It affirmed her belief that there was great and important writing happening from BIPOC artists in the city — but despite that greatness, there was little representation happening on main stages across Toronto.
"I wanted to find my home in the theatre community. If there wasn't going to be a place for me in the institutions, I would make it myself."
In 2002, Aquino co-founded fu-GEN Theatre, a company dedicated to making drama from the Asian Canadian experience, where she first served as artistic director. Throughout the aughts the company would help to birth several hit shows including a theatrical version of Terry Woo's book Banana Boys and early renditions of Kim's Convenience, which was eventually developed into a major sitcom. In 2009, she was appointed the artistic director of Cahoots Theatre Project, a company with a mandate to present theatrical reflecting Canada's cultural diversity. As Aquino and her peers told their stories, they began receiving praise from both audiences and critics.
Very gradually, as this success grew, more theatres began to program diverse work. Proving herself was a constant battle for Aquino, but slowly things were starting to change. During this time, she kept in touch with her contacts and colleagues at Factory, who offered support where they could. She was eventually made an artistic associate at the theatre — a title in name which didn't carry much weight. But in 2012, Aquino's relationship with that company changed dramatically.
That year, Factory's then-artistic director Ken Gass was unceremoniously released from his position by the theatre's board of directors. The decision came after a major dispute over a costly renovation for the theatre. In addition to founding Factory decades ago, Gass had returned to serve as its artistic director in 1997, saving the company from the brink of financial ruin. His dismissal was met with backlash from the public and the theatre community. And this was the temperment of Factory when Nina Lee Aquino and Nigel Shawn Williams were appointed to lead the theatre as an interim artistic team. What should have been a celebrated moment — two people of colour taking over the reins at a major Canadian institution — was overshadowed by the controversy at the theatre.
"In some ways, it reminded me of my first experiences with Factory," says Aquino. "The feeling like I was the illegitimate artistic director. It wasn't the typical exciting press release announcing the new leaders. The building was reeking of chaos...When Nigel and I got the job, there seemed to be a sigh of relief...We were there to pick up the pieces and put out the fires."
The first season programmed by the duo was created in the midst of the theatre community — makers and audiences alike — boycotting the establishment in support of Gass. The duo needed to program work to replace artists who had dropped out of the planned season. Things were politically and emotionally charged. There wasn't much money to work with. Once again, Aquino was fighting to create and support work she believed against forces beyond her control. The feelings of instability and needing to learn on the fly carried on for the next few years. In short, it was very hard.
Eventually, after three seasons, Aquino would take on the role of artistic director herself, which added clarity to the position at Factory and allowed for more creative experimentation and risks. It also allowed her to start incorporating her directing skills and her values to the institution.
"I've had joys through the eyes of my artists I've had the privilege and honour of bringing to Factory. I've had joy being able to re-establish Factory as a home for Canadian creation. Being able to redefine what Canada means on my own terms...When people think of Factory they think Canadian, but now they also know that Canadian doesn't need to mean white."
During the course of our interview, Aquino was funny and charming. Her answers were thoughtful and smart. But she was also very hard on herself. Aquino has played a pivotal role in bringing different perspectives to Toronto theatre, making the opportunities for BIPOC artists that she didn't have herself growing up. When I brought up this fact, she acknowledged the success, but she's also hyper-aware of the challenges it has taken to get there. Getting to a place where she is confidently leading Factory, where she is a majorly respected and influential part of Canadian theatre, has been a constant struggle to prove her validity as an artist who has been marginalized. Even during a celebratory time, she's candid about the uphill battle to get to her position and the continued work it takes to raise others up.
Aquino and her peers being the vanguard for diverse voices in the country has given space to new artists and made room for new kinds of stories. If the legacy of Factory's first 50 years was bringing Canadian work to the forefront, maybe the next 50 starts with Aquino pushing to broaden the scope of what "Canadian" means.