BWW Interviews: Nina Lee Aquino talks EVERY LETTER COUNTS
Nina Lee Aquino has a very commendable vision - she wants to see more diversity in our world's theatres (and more specifically, here on Toronto stages). To that end, she has spent many years championing diversity in the arts and her upcoming show 'Every Letter Counts' is no exception. The play is a re-imagining of the life of an important political icon from the Philippines, Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino.
The story focuses on the critical five days in Benigno's life just before he was assassinated. It is told through the eyes of his niece Bunny, a six year old who he teaches life lessons to through the game of Scrabble. The show reflects on many important issues in Benigno's life but also examines the bigger life lessons of love and mortality through the eyes of a child.
Nina sat down to speak with BWW about why this particular show is so important to her, about how she feels about diversity in the arts and her feelings on the theatrical climate of Toronto as a whole:
First off, congratulations on Every Letter Counts! Can you tell us a bit about the development of the show?
The idea and concept was first planted years ago when I was at Cahoots Theatre where Giovanni was the first person to really take notice of what I was doing. He made me a playwright in residence and the early drafts began forming. From there it continued to grow and transform into what it is today.
I was inspired after seeing Marjorie Chan's Madness of the Square. It's one of my favourite plays by her and when I saw it I loved the idea of giving voice to the voiceless in a time of revolution. In terms of Benigo's life, I wanted to write something about him from a different perspective. There are a ton of biographies and quite an extensive collection of documentaries about him but I wanted to intertwine the personal and the political in a new way.
Madness of the Square had a young voice and that really stood out in that iconic revolution. I thought it would be interesting if I could do the same thing with a story from my country and that is when I thought of Benigno and the People Power revolution. I wanted the lens to be not only a young lens, but a personal one as well.
Would you say that your play has a hopeful tone?
I think there's hope all over the place, but the play doesn't gear up towards redemption. The journey itself doesn't come to a definite conclusion, instead I leave that up to the audience. It's an acknowledgment of despair and sadness as well as hope. Benigno was revered as a hero in the Philippines but I wanted to show that he wasn't a perfect man, he had a dark side too. That side is something he reveals to his niece during the show.
What made you make the switch to writing and directing and away from acting? And why was Les Miserables your last show?
I consider Les Miserables to be my 'retirement' show in a manner of speaking. It was the last show I did before I decided that I didn't want to act and sing anymore. I have a lot of stories inside of me that I want to tell, and it takes me a long time to get the courage. I have voices in my head but I'm not always sure how to translate them.
When I came to Canada at the age of seventeen I began seeing signs that maybe my calling would be somewhere other than acting. I knew it would still be theatre, but I felt like it would be something different than being a performer. I felt that I needed to be in a different position in order to empower my community and artists and the arts itself. I saw a bigger picture that didn't have me on stage but instead pushing people to the stage, or nurturing playwrights to write for the stage.
Do you ever regret the decision?
I don't regret it, performing is something that I still do from time to time as an opportunity to learn from directors. The rare acting gigs that I say yes to are because I want to learn something new about direction. I take them as a way to grow as a director instead of a performer.
You have been an advocate for diversity in theatre - is working directly with the Asian population still near and dear to your heart?
A large part of my work and how I select my projects is driven by my beliefs and values surrounding diversity both on and off Toronto stages. Since I came onto the scene and began working and practicing theatre I have always carried that with me wherever I go - I'm an advocate for diversity in our entire community. I had to start somewhere and even before I began working with Fu-GEN I worked with Carlos Bulosan Theatre. Now I'm at Cahoots which is not just pan-Asian but instead diverse and includes all colours of the skin. I would like to grow myself and reach a lot more people and keep informing and educating as I grow. I want people to realize that you can imagine Shakespeare in colour. My goal is always going to be to have the Toronto theatre community look like the inside of a TTC bus - which is how it should be.
How do you think we're doing at this moment in time?
I think we're moving in the right direction but we're still pretty darn slow. It's like a dinosaur, old habits are hard to break and old fears are hard to destroy. But I have faith and confidence in the new generation of theatre makers and I'm seeing a lot of great signs in the works that are coming out. We should all try and see the world in different sizes, shapes and colours. It makes me hopeful to see the change in Toronto - but larger institutions are much slower to change. I have to remember the small things when I'm in a place of despair and feeling like there is no hope. Maybe I won't see the fruits of my work fully in my lifetime but I sure hope that my daughter will.
What do you say to people who are still rallying against colour blind casting? How do you address their concerns?
I hate using the term 'colour blind' because I think it's misleading. Diversity is all about seeing in colour. I think as a director I'm going to make a choice to hire the best actors in all shades of colour and really see all the options. I think it should be about opening up to ideas and creating a new vision.
I feel bad for directors who can't see options because their imagination can't stretch that far. We have to check our biases. For example, why can someone understand a Canadian playing a British role but they're unable to imagine an Asian Hamlet? That's when I get frustrated by the double standard. As a director you need to keep challenging your values and principles, it is what makes you grow.
What would you say to encourage a younger audience to come and see this show?
I think a younger audience should come so they can learn something that is outside of Canada and so that they can expand their knowledge about an event and a person they've never heard of. They can be inspired - especially for young people who feel uninspired or not at their best - I think this is the show for them to see and feel like there are people who can make noise in life. It would be great if they could come out looking for that kind of person within their own lives.
My big thing is that I don't really believe in the idea of universality, I don't necessarily think that everyone could relate, but the goal is for them to access it from a standpoint of learning and hopefully that feeling will pay forward. That's the kind of theatre I'm interested in and that's the track record of what I've done in the past. I want to keep expanding that circle.
When and Where?
Every Letter Counts
Jan 26th - Feb 24th
Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, by phone at 416 504 9971 or online at https://secure1.tixhub.com/factory/procurement/