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The indomitable Nina Lee Aquino is stepping down as artistic director of the Factory Theatre at the end of the 2021-2022 season. At that point, she’ll have run the Toronto theatre company dedicated to Canadian plays for 10 years.

“That was always, in my mind, the plan,” says Aquino in an interview with The Globe and Mail ahead of a public announcement about her departure. “I firmly believe in cycles of leadership.”

In the decision not to hold on too long, as in everything, Aquino is leading by example.

It’s hard to think of an artistic director who has done more to shepherd Toronto theatre into the present than the no-nonsense Aquino, one of the city’s finest stage directors who, for a decade, simply rolled up her sleeves and worked hard to bring audiences and artists into Factory who hadn’t been there before.

She’s never oversold this or been big on jargon: She’s just made sure the home of Canadian plays lived up to its mission for all kinds of Canadians.

In a release going out Thursday, Aquino is described as “the first woman of colour to serve as artistic director of a venued company in Canada” – which is probably right, but one of those claims that is hard to 100 per cent verify.

What can be said for certain is that when the Filipina-Canadian director became sole artistic director at Factory in 2014, white men were the artistic heads of every other theatre that had its own venue in town. Things were hardly more diverse in the rest of the country.

“There was a period of time where I was the only female artistic director of a mid-sized venued company – before Marjorie [Chan, now artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille] and Weyni [Mengesha, artistic director of Soulpepper],” Aquino recalls. “The pressure of that, carrying that flag, it was lonely and it was hard.”

The only way Aquino stands out in Toronto theatre now – she jokes – is that she’s the shortest artistic director in town.

Looking back, Aquino’s appointment to Factory can be clearly seen as an important turning point – but at the time it was obscured by a bunch of nonsense that got out of hand.

Factory Theatre nearly collapsed in 2012 when the company’s board of directors, led by chair Ron Struys, fired founding artistic director Ken Gass – who was then in the midst of his second tour of duty leading the company.

The dispute between these two parties was, as are most acrimonious ones in Toronto, about real estate – specifically what renovations of the historic mansion the company owns at the corner of Bathurst Street and Adelaide Street it could afford to pursue.

When it was clear differences were irreconcilable, Aquino and actor/director Nigel Shawn Williams stepped up to run the company as an interim artistic team.

It was big job to build Factory back up in the wake of the alienating departure of Gass, which included a boycott by artists who were loyal to him or felt a principle was at stake. This was led, mostly loudly, by the playwright George F. Walker, who, to this day, posts angrily about what happened on Facebook.

Annual attendance plummeted in 2013-2014 to a nadir of 2,901, down from 12,504 in 2011-2012.

But Aquino did build the audience back – especially once she became sole artistic director.

Her “Naked Season” in 2015-2016 made lemonade out of a sour financial situation. As described at the time, it involved six well-regarded Canadian plays “reimagined” as “pure theatrical encounters between the audience, the actor, the text and the empty space” – that is, with no real design budget.

I was skeptical at first, but productions such as Ravi Jain’s numinous take on David French’s Salt-Water Moon and Peter Hinton’s expressionist take on Anosh Irani’s Bombay Black were theatrical highlights of the decade.

Thereafter, new takes on older plays, often by BIPOC directors, became a staple at Factory – with Jani Lauzon’s production of Colleen Wagner’s The Monument and Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu’s production of Claudia Dey’s Trout Stanley as a couple other stand-outs.

Aquino’s willingness to do the legwork to find diverse talent and produce or present them brought many artists to mainstream attention in Toronto for the first time, including the playwright Jeff Ho, whose play Trace later toured to the National Arts Centre, and the director Mike Payette, now the incoming artistic director at Tarragon Theatre.

Once Aquino showcased them, those artists were often snatched up by other, richer theatre companies. But she’s never minded sharing. Indeed, she won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards for directing in the past decade – both for freelance shows she did on the side for other companies.

Factory attendance was back up to 10,807 in the final full season Aquino produced before the pandemic, which on a show-by-show basis is on par with the good years of Gass’s tenure. The company’s finances remain in healthy shape despite COVID-19 restrictions – and it’s one of the few theatres in the country to still have a company dramaturge on staff.

The physical building is still a concern. The company owns an incredibly valuable piece of real estate, but doesn’t have the cash flow to renovate the way it would like. The current board of directors is exploring all sorts of options.

There’s challenge and opportunity for whoever jumps into the position next.

As for Aquino’s future plans, she’s long been tipped as a frontrunner to be the next artistic director of the National Arts Centre, where a significant portion of Factory’s shows ended up touring during her tenure.

She says she’s open to all sorts of possibilities. “If my next adventure is running another theatre company, I’d love that,” she says, adding only: “maybe not one in a crisis again.”

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