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Factory Theatre artistic director does the local legwork to find diverse talent

Nina Lee Aquino says her career ‘has been based on being able to give voice to the voiceless.’

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Diversity isn't easy. Just ask Nina Lee Aquino.

The other night, the artistic director of Toronto's Factory Theatre dragged herself out to yet another independent production at yet another tiny venue even though she was tired, hungry and had a nine-year-old daughter waiting at home.

"Why I went there, even though I didn't feel like it, was because the show had an Asian lighting designer – that's rare," says Aquino, who sees an average of three shows a week as part what she calls her "field work."

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"I needed to check out his work, so I can have him in my stock."

At a time when many of Toronto's subsidized theatres have come under fire for not reflecting the diversity of the citizenry who subsidizes them, Factory Theatre is a shining exception – a theatre company that fully looks like the city you see riding the streetcar or the subway, both on stage and off. More than 60 per cent of the artists in the current six-play season are culturally diverse; and more than 50 per cent are women.

What's the secret? It's not that Aquino, as the only woman of colour running a major, venued theatre company in Toronto, knows more female artists and artists of colour. It's that Aquino cares enough about diversity in theatre that she makes a point of making sure that who she knows is more than just who she knows.

While other artistic directors pay lip service to inclusivity and then head off on research trips to London or Berlin, Aquino does the local legwork required to achieve it – even seeing as many as 30 shows each Fringe Festival to discover talent that doesn't necessarily come out of theatre schools.

Salt-Water Moon, which kicks off the second half of Factory's season on Tuesday, is a perfect example of what the company's idea of Canadian theatre looks like these days. Set in Newfoundland in 1926, David French's much-loved 1984 romance stars Dora winner Kawa Ada and Gemini nominee Mayko Nyugen. Director Ravi Jain, who runs Why Not? theatre and is a resident artist at Soulpepper, is staging the show, while Toronto singer-songwriter Ania Soul will provide live music throughout.

Nailing down an in-demand group of artists such as this takes time – not to mention back-up plans. "When we put together this season, this was draft number 8.7," says Aquino, who is married to actor Richard Lee, currently on stage in Chimerica at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. "It's artists' availabilities that are always a bitch to get."

It helps that, at just 38, Aquino has had a career in theatre clearly devoted to diverse artists long before #OscarsSoWhite started trending. After university, she first made her mark within her own cultural community, working with Carlos Bulosan Theatre – a company dedicated to Filipino-Canadian stories and artists.

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In 2002, Aquino became the founding artistic director of fu-GEN – an Asian Canadian theatre company. Then, in 2009, she was appointed artistic director of Cahoots – a company that's been devoted to overall culturally inclusive work since 1986. "My whole career has been based on being able to give voice to the voiceless," Aquino says.

Indeed, her appointment as artistic director of Factory in a city where white men still head almost all of the established, venued companies would surely have been a moment of celebration – if it hadn't happened under such strange and divisive circumstances. To review the sorry tale: When Ken Gass – Factory's founding artistic director and one of Aquino's mentors – was fired by the company's board of directors in June, 2012, she and actor and director Nigel Shawn Williams were appointed to replace him on an interim level. A related boycott of the company by artists nearly sunk the theatre entirely: Factory had sold 12,504 tickets in its 2011-2012 season, but in the season after Gass's departure (which he had programmed) that dropped to 4,896. The following year paid attendance shrunk to just 2,901.

In the fall of 2014, however, Aquino became the sole artistic director – and the company began to rebrand and rebuild. Attendance has since been heading back in the right direction, with small deficits turned into small surpluses.

The current season – comprising Canadian plays that already have track records such as Salt-Water Moon – has been a comeback and will be the most successful since Gass left. Only three shows in, Factory has already sold more than 3,000 tickets – largely due to attracting new audiences, rather than bringing back the old ones.

Banana Boys – a play about five "Canadian-born Chinese" men and their struggles with identity, families and love – was the first real hit Factory has had in a while. Around 74 per cent of those who booked tickets were new to Factory's database – and most of them had Asian last names, notes Aquino.

The real challenge, of course, is for Factory to get audiences that come for a specific play to then return for productions that aren't as directly aimed at them. And that challenge has little to do with race, ethnicity or cultural background. Notes Aquino, in cheerful frustration: "We have an iTunes generation – people don't buy the entire album any more, they want to pick and choose. And they want to choose in their own goddamn time!"

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Is a consistently culturally diverse theatre audience really possible – or is the future in micro-targeted shows? Aquino thinks Factory has a "fighting chance" at the former as long as it keeps trying to be as inclusive as possible and the message gets out. Trying and, it should be noted, not being afraid to fail either. Because even Aquino hasn't been free from controversies over representation that are now regular occurrences in North America culture.

Last season, she directed a play called The Unplugging by the Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan – and the casting of two non-indigenous women in the leads ended up being called into question by well-known aboriginal artists such as Tantoo Cardinal. In the end, Native Earth – co-producers of the play with Factory – pledged to "never again be involved in a production that allows an Indigenous character to be portrayed by a non-Indigenous actor."

But while Aquino says that she learned a lot about "Indigenous cultures and worldviews and the need to put community first," she also thinks there can be a diversity of approaches to diversity.

"I believe that every theatre company should identify their mission and mandate and produce art true to their own policies and practices," Aquino says. "My work has always been dedicated toward building an intercultural theatre." Now that she's built it, we'll just have to see who will come.

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