Nina Lee Aquino

Self Isolated Artist

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Joe Szekeres

What a delightful conversation this afternoon with Factory Theatre’s Artistic Director, Nina Lee Aquino. An absolute pleasure in hearing her speak, rather candidly, at times, about how she has been coping as a self-isolated artist.

Nina Lee is choosing to remain optimistic in the face of this pandemic. Just from listening to her today, I felt reassured that she is another strong individual to lead Factory out of this darkness right now of uncertainty and confusion into whatever the future may hold. She put me at ease very quickly with her witty sense of humour combined with her dynamic spirit of counsel and fortitude especially in how she is looking where she will take Factory over the next few years.

Nina Lee and I conducted our conversation via Zoom:

It has been nearly three months since we’ve all been in lockdown. How have you and your family been keeping during this period of isolation from other immediate family members and friends?

Well, it doesn’t feel like isolation other than the fact than I’m just really at home for almost 24/7. In terms of workload for myself if anything it’s been a lot more. We’re a family of 3, my husband, Richard, and 13-year-old daughter, Eponine. Surprisingly or maybe not so surprisingly everyone has been busy. I mean everyone in the family.

My 13-year-old daughter is juggling her school which has fully transitioned online. She’s had a couple of theatre gigs – online workshops or online presentations- with different theatre companies (YPT). Her movie also premiered online with the virtual edition of the Canadian Film Festival. She’s done some PR work. Apart from school, she’s had her own theatre work and the responsibilities that come with it – reading the script, making sure she’s being a good actor, and doing her homework. That’s occupied her time.

Richard is a theatre artist. His teaching online during the lockdown time with Humber is done. He’s involved in advocacy work with various boards of directors that have transitioned online. He’s had some theatre gigs and some online workshops where he gets hired as an actor.

And there’s me balancing Factory Theatre and PACT. I also have to help ensure the bigger picture nationally of what theatre companies are going through that I am there with them to help contribute, to help solve, to comfort or agitate (at times). I have to be at the very top helping the theatre companies go through this crisis together and be a unifying force in many ways. So, that’s the work I do with PACT.

And then there’s Nina Lee Aquino, the artist. Lots of little Zoom meetings, fielding phone calls where I’m comforting the distressed and the confused. I’m also helping to comfort the anxieties with the emerging artists. I have fresh theatre graduates from York University who are really scared and confused and just want to know what they’re stepping into in this theatre community right now. So there are a lot of meetings of this kind going on and they add up in the day with virtual coffee chats, ‘talk it through’ with a lot of listening. My June calendar has filled up but July’s calendar is looking good.

I think I’m due for a vacation in whatever form that takes for awhile because at some point I really need to stop and recharge. It is unrelenting but that is the job and the role of Artistic Director.

And then we have to be a family of mother, father, daughter, husband, and wife, and just be together as a family only. We can be together in a space but are we really together and present for each other? I’ve scheduled no Zoom meetings on Saturday or for a certain day. Because of this COVID situation, because I try not to do anything on Saturday or Sunday, then I’m restless. It’s not like I can go out. It’s just so weird where I’ve been working at home for 40 plus hours and now, I’m not expected to leave the house except for essentials.

What has been most challenging and difficult for you during this time both personally and professionally? What have you all been doing to keep yourselves busy?

Personally, I think it is connected to the profession. Before COVID we as a family have accepted that our personal and professional lives will always be closely intertwined. I’ve stopped fighting as these are two beasts that need to live together. I’ve stopped attempting to place things in innate little columns as it just doesn’t work for our family. There’s an acceptance in the three of us that personal is professional, and professional is personal. Who we are as human beings is who we are as artists.

The challenge right now really is about space. That is the one as a family we are trying to manage in this tiny Toronto shoebox of a condo. We have a dog too. The navigating of the physical spacing doesn’t really work with the professional space that is required which in turn is also emotional space. With the advocacy work I’ve done the last couple of days, how do you shed that for awhile?

The final piece because personal and professional are merged – for the first time, my daughter is getting a clear idea of what I do. I have to allow her to witness me at work going through everything from the hardest bits to the glorious bits. At 13 (a crucial age), when she’s trying to figure her own shit out, what a way to learn things that I can be there and have those candid conversations with her. My kid has turned out really cool so I know we’ve done something right with her and we’re just going to go with the flow.
My lovely husband has gifted me with a bike so that I can, in those small moments, hop on it, go ride around and come back. As a family, we rode our bikes together last weekend and then had dinner in a park together. I wouldn’t have thought that a bicycle would be a gift. Just give me a diamond necklace or get me shoes. The bike has come in handy.

My husband gets to go out more as he is freelance. He does the grocery shopping, the errands because he’s the driver. For me, besides bike riding, I should think of something else to be able to unload for a bit. I should try to find a hobby outside all of this is a challenge. That hasn’t changed. Maybe I’ll try to grow some plants in my balcony but wish me luck because I’m horrible. My cactus died. Who kills a cactus? I know it’s awful, but I should also have some outside interests and I’m going to try. I’m a work in progress.

I can’t even begin to imagine the varied emotions and feelings you’ve been going through personally and professionally with other key players and individuals with regard to Factory Theatre’s future. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact on the Canadian performing arts and theatre scene and on Factory Theatre?

Yah. Here’s the difficult part of these COVID conversations. There’s just no answers as information keeps evolving every 48 hours. The only certain things are that it’s here and what are the safety measures to combat the spreading of COVID. We’re still talking as if it’s going to go away.

Right now, we are transitioning to new conversations of “What if COVID is going to stick around like the common cold?” “What if it never goes away?” “How do we deal with this shit?”

Part of me is still not accepting and that we will come back as normal as normal can be. Part of me thinks there’s going to be a season next season. Part of me says there will be people who will come through our doors and sit side by side. And it’s just not going to happen. That uncertainty is killing the vibe. No clear answers with very conflicting events that are very confusing. It’s also scary because what do we follow? What do we do?

Not all provinces are ready to open while some are. For me, who also freelances on the side, what are the possibilities of doing my gigs in Winnipeg when Ontario is on semi-lockdown? It’s tricky.

I worry in thinking about it. If it’s here to stay for a while, it affects what I had planned for next season. Now I have to look long term. It’s a delicate juggling balance as AD. In postponing productions, what other artists are you screwing over that season or next season? With Factory, I’ve roughly 3 seasons roughly sketched out with commitments whether it’s commission or a verbal promise. One way or another, it’s hard emotionally to balance but that’s what Covid is doing.

The easy thing is to sanitize and clean theatres all you want. The programming and long-term commitments to artist and custom tailoring programming to the safety measures of this illness and virus are the impacts of COVID on Factory Theatre and on future seasons. I’m really worried about the artistic side, and the audience side is another concern.

These are things that sometimes keep me up at nights. It’s not going to affect next season, but I can see it affecting at least all three seasons following.

Do you have any words of wisdom to console or to build hope and faith in those performing artists and employees at Factory who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any words of sage advice to the new graduates from Canada’s theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion?

In terms of within Factory between me and Managing Director Jonathan Heppner, we’ve come to the fact that no matter what happens we will figure it out. If there’s anything that I am confident about is this uncertainty of COVID is that like true theatre artists we will work with it, around it, through it because we’re theatre artists because we make the impossible, possible. Full stop.

For the grads, I was asked to speak to York University’s grad Zoomation. I was newly appointed as Professor Adjunct. Given the circumstances that we have gone through in the past couple of days, the pandemic is one thing but to be on the brink of a real awakening. That is really the lasting impact that I’m hoping. This pandemic requires us to sit still for a while that we use it to our advantage.

To the theatre grads – you only need to look at your social media feeds to get what you need to get and to learn, and you are afforded the time to do so. There is no excuse anymore to not know anything. In choosing your own artistic path, coming out of this, we can be better human beings. The knowledge is out there. Stories were given out freely and put front and centre for us to now use and to learn from.

For our theatre community given the racial injustice protests these last few days, this is a real awakening. We need to do better. It’s ok to say, “I fucked up.” This is action. There is also an expectation of re-thinking your programming to what we’ve just learned to have a really inclusive season.

There is time now so break down your default theatre artist list and create a new one. Read new plays, make new connections to artists who don’t look like you. Read new voices. What can I do to show my solidarity to be a better human being? The resources are there. What can I do now to be a better ally and show my solidarity? It may mean starting all over again, but now is the time to start doing it. It’s good, it’s needed. We needed this pause.

Do you foresee anything positive stemming from COVID 19 and its influence on the Canadian performing arts scene?

We need to make sure spaces are safe in theatre for mental health and the racial injustice protests from this last week are showing this. COVID 19 has proven regarding our work schedules, at least from the theatre administration side that with some jobs, we don’t need to follow the strict ‘labour-esque’ work schedules. Sometimes, some of our work can be done from home.

Right now, my staff at Factory is fucking kicking ass since they’ve been working from home. I love it. Even though we miss each other, my staff looks healthier, no one looks burned out, there’s no lack of rigour since they’ve been working from home. We can be a bit more flexible. It’s not just about counting hours, but it’s also about quality.

YouTube presentations, online streaming seems to be part of a ‘new normal’ at this time for artists to showcase their work.

What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for Canadian theatre as we move forward from COVID 19?

I have come to accept the fact that as long as we’re creating, we’re good. Factory has done several virtual presentations, very successful. I am done labeling what we’re doing. I think that’s part of the problem.
We’re just going to do what we do best. There’s space, there’s actors. The three virtual presentations in May and June was a way for me to pay artists and to keep the creativity going while we can. It’s also pure audience engagement and it’s our duty to check in with everyone’s souls and that Factory audiences are ok.

First and foremost, I am a theatre artist. Like the virtual presentation of ‘House’, we need to be aware of new medium. Let’s play with it. That’s what theatre artists do. We push with certain things, but we have to be open to learning how to play with the new technology. There are digital artists out there who are good out there and it’s important to reach out to them.

I don’t want to say no to discovering new things and new forms as they may go hand in hand. As theatre artists, discovery is one of our tenants, and we need to open to new tools and to whatever form and structure theatre may be through artistic sensibilities and telling great stories in whatever medium possible.

As AD, there is a need (of funds, resources, tools) to invest in playwrights writing in a different stage. I’m not abandoning the traditional theatre format, but I have to look at investing in new processes for delivering work. Maybe Factory Season can be traditional and a couple of virtual plays online. I will never say no to creation.

What is about your role as Artistic Director of Factory Theatre that COVID will never destroy?

I think it’s very clear from our nice conversation so far is the thing that COVID did not affect at all is the advocacy work. The COVID can cancel my artistic programming, the COVID can re-arrange how I work administratively. That’s good it didn’t destroy advocacy to look after my community, local, Toronto, and the larger community. It’s both a burden and an honour. It’s just exhausting as you can’t stop taking care of a community.

The community is playing catchup in this re-awakening.

With a respectful acknowledgement to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:

1. What is your favourite word?

Metamorphosis

2. What is your least favourite word?

Universal

3. What turns you on?

Hmmm…a really good design jam session with my creative team. Yah, Yah.
4. What turns you off?

Indifference.

5. What sound or noise do you love?

The first sound cue in a cue to cue session. That first official sound cue when we’re running a tech rehearsal.

6. What sound or noise bothers you?

Car honk.

7. What is your favourite curse word? Holy Fuck.

What is your least favourite curse word? (Thank you, Nigel Shawn Williams, for this addition to the question) Cunt. When I hear it, it makes me go…(and Nina Lee shrugs her shoulders).

(At this point, Nina Lee and I laugh together a tad awkwardly but also a tad conspiratorially at this second part of the question.)

8. Other than your current profession now, what other profession would you have liked to attempt?

If I had the intelligence and the ability, I’d love to be one of those pure mathematicians. The ones that create proofs. That world to me is magic to understand numbers in such a meta magical way. If not, maybe a conductor of an orchestra. The waving and knowing you can control music coming at you from all angles. When I watch conductors of an orchestra, man, I wanna be there.

9. What profession could you not see yourself doing?

Oh my God, 98% I think first and foremost my friends (including Nigel Shawn Williams) would vouch for this – anything to do with nature ‘cause I hate it. Mountain ranging, gardening, even mowing the lawn, I will mess it up, fuck it up, or I will not care for it ‘cause I hate it.

10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?

“How the fuck did you get you get here? Seriously? Who gave you a pass?” I feel like I’m destined to go to hell. I think God does cuss, I really think he does, but it’s okay ‘cause he’s God.

To learn more about Factory Theatre, visit their website: www.factorytheatre.ca. You can also visit their Facebook page and Twitter accounts.

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