Arts·Point of View

'I'm way too impatient. I just want to do it.' Nina Lee Aquino on representation and resilience at NAC

The National Arts Centre's new English theatre head looks to "rise above limitations."

The National Arts Centre's new English theatre head looks to 'rise above limitations'

Filipino Canadian theatremaker Nina Lee Aquino has been tapped to bring a bold new vision to the National Arts Centre as the next artistic director of the NAC English Theatre. (Dahlia Katz Photography)

Theatres in Ontario are facing their biggest challenge in generations; on January 5, provincial restrictions shut down live productions once again, just as many companies were about to restart their winter seasons since the first round of cancellations in March 2020. But, the next day, there was cause for celebration on social media when Ottawa's National Arts Centre announced the new artistic director of its English Theatre company, Filipina-Canadian director Nina Lee Aquino.

The formative Toronto artistic director, currently at Factory Theatre in Toronto, officially takes the helm of our nationally minded performing arts centre on August 29, 2022 from the outgoing Jillian Keiley; both are successfully completing posts covering a thrilling but tumultuous decade of arts leadership, including increasing changes in mainstream entertainment habits and the streaming wars, an industry-wide reckoning with ingrained racial and gender inequality, and a global pandemic. In fact, the reaction to Aquino's appointment seemed especially jubilant for several reasons: yes, it was a rare moment from the past two years that the theatre community could call a win, but also Aquino is especially poised to continue Keiley's biggest accomplishments in a more pointed, deliberate way – increase the NAC English Theatre's efforts to reflect the Canadian population in 2022, increase the complexity and scope of what Canadian storytelling means in the 2000's, and doing so in any way that a pandemic will allow.

"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," Aquino said in the National Arts Centre press release announcing the new gig.

When we spoke to Aquino on the evening of January 6, the 44-year-old – who seldomly posts on social media – said she hadn't seen the messages online or checked her messages. It's overwhelming enough to get through "all the adult stuff" that comes with a big move, particularly when it involves an actor and teacher husband (Richard Lee, Monday Nights) and a 15-year-old burgeoning artist daughter (Eponine Lee, who made her Stratford Festival debut this summer as Juliet in R + J). But Aquino has deep roots in Toronto theatre, immersed in it since her teen years, an artistic director since her early twenties (starting out with fu-GEN Asian Theatre Company and Cahoots Theatre, both dedicated to presenting work by artists of colour), and an eminent mentor of emerging and established BIPOC artists and a relentless theatregoer of small indie stages.

Nina Lee Aquino. (Cesar Ghisilieri Photography)

"My wise daughter said, 'If you have this job, you're not really leaving Toronto. You're just backing up a bit so that you can embrace all of us.' That mental image, that's the one that put me at ease," Aquino said. "Being able to nurture Canadian artists, to nurture Canadian stories and to advocate for the power of Canadian theatre, that's not going to change. I'm just backing up a bit so that I get a bigger picture of Canadian theatre as a whole, as a growing ecology and how to make it healthier."

Aquino has earned her reputation for spearheading growth and progress despite a wealth of challenges. After the abrupt firing of longtime Factory artistic director Ken Gass, Aquino's start in her current position was rife with community blowback, not to mention the usual issues of the job regarding budgets and artistic output. But beginning with the remarkable "Naked Season" of stripped-down Canadian classics with deliberately interracial creative teams, Aquino retook control of the narrative. 

"With a very, um, unique start at Factory, to leave on a high note, to be so proud of the work I've been able to do, and to pass the baton when I didn't think I'd even have one means a lot to me. It's really emotional to pass it on to the next generation who can take Factory to the next level," Aquino said.

In the early 2010's, conversations around representation in theatre revolved around colourblind casting. But Aquino, at the forefront of a wave of artistic director appointments of artists of colour throughout the next ten years, has been an influential force in diversifying the kinds of stories are told in Canadian theatre, how they're told, and who tells them, and that isn't about to change with a move to Ottawa. 

"Take a look at my headshot. I know that I'm the first, I'm used to that. But this time around I think it's a given, people know my agenda," she said, but is looking forward to moving beyond representation into deeper questions around our cumulative national identity, on our own stages and on the global stage. "I really want to examine what nationhood means now. What can it mean in the future? How does it connect with Indigenous nationhood? How does it connect globally? Hopefully I get to explore it myself and present any learnings or insights through the work."

As the president of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres since 2018 and through programming productions from across the country into Factory Theatre seasons, Aquino is eager to get back to travelling and reconnecting with distant regions of Canadian artists and to bring an international perspective into her first season of programming in 2023-2024 (the next season has already been programmed by Keiley in partnership with Montreal's Black Theatre Workshop). But pandemic or not, Aquino says she continue to find ways to push programming out from beyond the physical walls of a building in Ottawa or Toronto.

"I know for a fact that no matter what happens, theatre will be around. We are a resilient bunch. We are artists, we are creative, we make the impossible possible. And so, during this time, where we are not able to physically gather, this is where we rise above the limitations," she said.

"You know me, I can't write beautiful stuff on the socials about inclusion and diversity or theatre. I'm way too impatient. I just want to do it."


Carly Maga is a new Calgarian by way of Toronto and Ottawa, where she is Senior Manager of Marketing & Communications at Arts Commons. She has been a freelance arts writer and critic for over 10 years and served as a theatre critic for the Toronto Star from 2015 to 2021. She has also taught theatre criticism at the University of Toronto, Brock University, and Generator, and is a former President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association.

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