This year Nina Lee Aquino adds “York adjunct professor” to the long list of credits to her name. Alongside her upcoming work at Toronto’s Factory Theatre as artistic director, she will be teaching Playwriting and New Play Dramaturgy for the department of theatre in the 2021 winter term.
As excited as she is, Aquino reflects on her prior experiences at York: “I’m a twice rejected York person.” Aquino explains how she left York after her first year following a rejection for the acting conservatory program, and then another rejection when she later applied for York’s masters of fine arts (MFA) in directing.
This did not stop her from returning in 2018 when she was invited to direct the debut performance of David Lee’s Rochdale, a play written for York’s fourth-year acting class.
“Being able to direct something that special at York on my own terms was such a great experience with the entire faculty. As a director you get to work with not just the acting students, but with the production students as well. It had such a smooth — but still challenging — joyous process, and we all enjoyed it. I learned a lot,” Aquino says.
Aquino adds that the show was taken to the next level and performed at SummerWorks, a Toronto theatre festival, only months after it’s premier at York. She reflects on the support she received from the theatre department, the chair, and the students who also continued on the project.
Aquino notices how intertwined York is in her artistic life. “I had just been involved in other small things at York, whether by accident or they reached out to me for help, guidance and council, etc. My destiny with York was to not be a student, I was always going to come back to York, but in a different capacity,” she says.
“If I can hear the music in my mind, if I can see the words and hear the music underneath it, then it’s the right script for me.”
“It is as it should be — I was never meant to be a student there, I was meant to be a student of a different kind… and I’m glad for it. I’m glad that my heart has the capacity to welcome an institution and be welcomed by an institution where I could have just attached so much heartbreak on it.”
Aquino even spoke to the graduating class during the most recent virtual convocation, and shared the story of her journey at York in her address. “It’s not about my rejections, it’s not about a revenge story, it’s about feeling like it’s still a place that I belonged, and I wanted to help make it better, and I wanted to help grow it,” she says.
Aquino says her work is known for it’s seamlessness. One of her biggest creative questions is: “what is the beating heart of that play and how do we represent it visually?”
“If I can hear the music in my mind, if I can see the words and hear the music underneath it, then it’s the right script for me,” she adds.
Aquino says that cinema is one of the biggest influences on her creative process as a theatrical director. “I actually miss seeing cinema a lot more because it has been such an integral part of my artistic picture. I get a lot of my inspirational work from cinema, and now that I don’t have that I feel like there’s an emptiness.” She shares how she’s been navigating the global pandemic as an artist.
“With the kind of work I’m doing at Factory Theatre and at the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, I think I’m obsessed with trying to make sure that our theatre industry recovery happens. The reboot, or whatever you wanna call it, when we come out of the pandemic, I hope that we will be okay, we will be more than okay, and that takes time to prepare and plan. That’s what’s been keeping me up at night, all the worries that come with that, all the challenges and struggles of trying to figure this thing out,” Aquino says.
If what we know of the coming online season at Factory Theatre is any indication, Aquino’s work will undoubtedly be at the forefront of the post-pandemic Toronto theatre scene.
Aquino has some words of advice for emerging artists. “If you are true to your calling and true to your purpose, then the universe really does take care of the rest,” she says.
“Just knowing when you step into that room and you feel powerful and empowered, then you’re in the right place, regardless of the challenges and it’s supposed to be hard.”
Aquino explains that beyond being a theatre student, it is about discovering what you truly want to do in theatre. The sooner you can create specific stepping stones to a clear goal, the better. She says there is a fearlessness that comes with knowing whether you are really good at something, and deciding to keep getting better and better.
“Just knowing when you step into that room and you feel powerful and empowered, then you’re in the right place, regardless of the challenges and it’s supposed to be hard,” Aquino says.
“I think the difference is that if you know that this is really what you’re meant to be, it’s not only that you love it, but you savour and embrace the challenges that come with it. If you know that growth is on the other side of that then, yeah, this is really meant for you,” she says.
“However, it is also equally important to know what’s not working and that it’s okay to shift, it’s okay to use the program. The time that you are training or being this person in theatre, doesn’t mean that you can’t explore other avenues that make your heart sing, but you’ve got to go to those places — all of those are on purpose and deliberate, it’s okay,” Aquino adds.
What’s next for Aquino besides teaching at York? She just began the rehearsal for the first show in Factory Theatre’s online season. “I’m not a film director, I don’t know anything about freaking cameras. It’s a new play too, by David Yee, so I’m super excited. It’s also going to feel weird being in a virtual space for rehearsals,” Aquino says.
She adds: “I’m kind of craving and missing the in-personness of it all, but grateful that Factory Theatre is still able to do this, still able to support artists, and still able to be a home for creation during these very challenging, strange times.”