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The National Arts Centre has selected Nina Lee Aquino as the next artistic director for its English Theatre.Dahlia Katz/Handout

The National Arts Centre has selected the next artistic director for its English Theatre: Nina Lee Aquino.

The award-winning director and dramaturge, currently wrapping up a decade-long tenure running Toronto’s Factory Theatre, will take over from outgoing artistic director Jillian Keiley in August 2022, the federally funded performing arts centre based in Ottawa announced on Thursday.

This is not a huge surprise as far as artistic appointments go; Aquino is a natural fit with the role.

Indeed, when she announced that she was leaving Factory last spring, I wrote that she seemed like a front-runner to take over at the NAC – and, thankfully, didn’t jinx her.

“You can say you called it,” Aquino said in an interview ahead of Thursday’s announcement. “Truth be told, I had no plans of going to another company so soon.”

Why is Aquino, whose first season of NAC programming will land in 2023-2024, such an appropriate choice?

Well, Factory already operates with what she calls a “national mentality” as a theatre dedicated to Canadian work by Canadian artists. Productions she has directed or developed in Toronto have slotted seamlessly into NAC seasons past.

She also, personally, has a deep understanding of the theatrical ecosystem from coast to coast as president of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres.

Though just 44, Aquino has spent 20 years as an artistic director, leading companies with broader and broader mandates. First, she help found fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company in 2002; then, she took over the culturally diverse company Cahoots in 2009, before segueing into her current position at Factory starting in 2012.

Taking over what Aquino calls “the mothership of Canadian theatre” is therefore an obvious step up a career ladder. “What it means to be a national theatre company in a post-national world really intrigues me,” she says. “’I’d love to explore what that means through the work.”

To that end, Aquino is interested not just in Canada’s place in the world, but what she calls “the world’s place in Canada.” She hopes the resources of the NAC will allow her to create opportunities for cultural exchange that were out of reach at the smaller companies she’s run.

Aquino will now have access to bigger stages, such as the NAC’s 896-seat Babs Asper Theatre. As a fan of productions she’s directed, I’m excited to what she does with the space.

Aquino, who recently won both a Dora Mavor Moore Award and a Toronto Theatre Critics’ Award for her direction of School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play, says she’s most excited about having Canadian playwrights write for that stage – and adds, cheekily, that she hopes it can help inspire them to “break the shackles of realism and naturalism.”

The long-standing conundrum of the NAC, of course, is that it is a national institution centred in one particular city.

During her term as artistic director, Keiley, who rose to prominence as the head of Newfoundland’s Artistic Fraud, did a lot of work to decentralize the English Theatre by investing resources in productions across the country.

But it ultimately took the pandemic for the company to truly develop a national reach through its digital offerings.

At Factory, Aquino has done a better job better-than-average job of predicting where the pandemic would go, programming just digital and audio work this fall and winter, and planning for a return to live, in-person theatre only in April of 2022. (I thought that was overcautious when it was announced – not the first time I was outsmarted by one of her artistic decisions.)

The continuing Factory online programming has been quite successful, with a series of audio plays well designed for the current attention span landing on my top 10 list last year, and a livestream of David Yee’s play Acts of Faith finding audiences not just across Canada, but as far afield as Singapore (and the United States).

Even though the pandemic will, let us hope, be a thing of the past by fall of 2023, Aquino says she’s interested in continuing to explore that kind of work at the NAC, and that it’s not an either-or proposition. “We can keep getting better and better at telling stories both in person and in the digital realm,” she says. “There’s space for everything.”

The Filipino-Canadian director, as a NAC press release notes, has had a career full of “firsts,” from organizing the first Asian Canadian theatre conference to becoming, at Factory, the first woman of colour to serve as artistic director of a venued company in Canada. Now, Aquino will be the first person of colour to run the English Theatre at the NAC.

I told her that I wasn’t sure how much I should be emphasizing that in writing about her appointment.

“You’re tired of having to write that, I’m tired of having to be that!” she replied.

“I know the importance of it, but I also know that sometimes the first one out of the gate is the first one to get their teeth kicked in,” Aquino added, quoting a mentor, the director and dramaturg Ric Knowles. “I’ve got dentures handy.”

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