The Factory Theatre was a rocking place Sunday afternoon, as I arrived to interview recently appointed Factory AD Nina Aquino and her former boss, mentor, and now, collaborator; playwright, and former Native Earth AD, Yvette Nolan.
Rehearsal has just broken. Techs and front of house staff were hurrying around, getting ready for the preview that night. We slid into Nina's office at the top of stairs to escape the bustle and talk.
Nolan and Aquino are a study in contrasts.
Nolan is an imposing looking woman, tall, dressed rocker chick tough in jeans, boots and a black T-shirt, her trademark silver mane, loose. She looks relaxed and comfortable.
Aquino is in tan flats, a delicate white dress with fine hand made lace insets, a cream cardigan, an up-do, a long, delicate gold chain. She is measured in her speech, but the lively hand movements punctuating her comments, suggest a torrent of energy behind the contained exterior.
The office reflects Aquino's personal style: red tulips on the desk, family photos, a throw on the sofa, signs of someone who cares about, and pays attention to details.
Nina sits behind the desk. Yvette offers me her big, leather, power chair, opposite Nina, but I'm already on the couch. Besides, this way, I can look at both of them while we talk.
S&G: Why this play? Why now?
Nina: Well, in some ways it does feel like we are at at the end of the world. We're plugged in all the time to our technology, but we lack human connection.
Yvette: I came back here (Toronto) around the time of the big black-out, the one in August, not last winter. People were really nice for three days, but if it had gone on much longer, I could see it getting ugly. There was this woman next door to me, who kept watering her lawn, unconscious of the fact the reservoir needs electricity to be filled. "We could run out of water," I said."My lawn will die," she said. I thought, "If we run out of water, we will die."
I am, foremost a playwright. While I was at Native Earth, I wrote 10 minute things, but no full-length plays. When I left, I wasn't sure I could still write a play. Around that time, my mother died. She was only sixty-five. She was an elder, a residential school survivor, and yet, I felt her wisdom was devalued.
I've turned fifty. I got a good education, I have a voice, I've had a platform, I've had power, and the responsibility of power. I've been thinking about these things: about what happens when we run out of power, about how we devalue older woman, how they become voiceless. You see it in how few good roles there are for older women. I spent twenty years, and three months writing this play: twenty in my head and three on the page.
S&G: Has Yvette directed your work, Nina? Yvette, how does it feel, as a writer and a director, to hand your play over to another director?
Nina: No! I have written plays, but I am really a director, not a writer. I wrote the play I felt I needed to write about my family history, about what it means to be an Aquino. I don't feel compelled to write the way I need to direct. Yvette gave me great trust, and great freedom as a director.
Yvette: Yeah, well, and it was Nina!
Yvette: As I get older, I get more relaxed, less controlling. In a way, writing a play is a kind of structured improv. I create a frame, but then the actors, and the director, and the team bring their own creativity to it. It's great to see how it is different, production to production. (This is the play's 3rd production, but the Toronto debut) And we have our team.
Nina: We both work with (lighting designer) Michelle Ramsay and (set designer) Camilla Koo. There's a great understanding of what we want, what we need, a shared aesthetic.
S&G: Have you changed much since Vancouver? (THE UNPLUGGING won a Jesse, Vancouver's Dora Awards for Outstanding New Play in 2013.)
Yvette: A few things.
Nina: Some little things. Not much.
S&G: What did Yvette teach you about being an artistic director?
Nina: She gave me a template for leadership. She's never given me 'advice" but, in pivotal moments, without asking, I'll get a random text.
She's smiling at Yvette.
Nina: It's like we have a psychic connection.
S&G: You've both been artistic directors. Not many women can say that. Could you speak about that experience?
Yvette: It's a hard job. You're in service to your community. I was very aware of not wanting to squander an opportunity. I was very conscious of being a voice for the 1st Nations community, which is a big responsibility. Women don't get enough opportunities to train for that step-up, into a position of power. If you don't get to work very often, how can you become skillful?
Nina: Well, I had been a director of two companies before this, Cahoots and fu-GEN, so I was used to the ritual of wearing a lot of different hats. I think you have to be able to wear a lot of different hats if you want to have a career in this business. This is a bigger production, a bigger plant. Theatre is process, this job is process every day. I also have to think about where the company sits in the theatre ecology, and how we can transform, enrich and change the community.
S&G: Was the decision to co-produce part of that?
Nina: Yes! Emerging work, artists of colour, we want to give more people better opportunities. We have a "yes" policy. If you invite us to see your show, we will say yes, if we possibly can. I am vigilant about seeing work. Do you know this is the first time Native Earth has co-produced with the Factory?
Yvette: That's really exciting!
S&G: What's different for you, this season, from last season?
Nina: Oh, everything! More clarity, more stability. The first year, after all the troubles. we just had to deal with what was handed to us, and try to keep the place from going under. It's been a struggle. This year, we had the ability to make more choices. This play was my choice. It is the first play I am directing at the Factory. I wanted to direct this play.
S&G: If you were going to give some advice to your 20 year old self, now, what would it be?
Yvette: Have more sex!
We all laugh.
Nina: Yeah? What's that line in the play? "More sex, less angst."
Yvette: Yes, more sex, less angst!
Yvette: Be less afraid. Get good teachers. Don't be afraid to make mistakes.
Nina: I would tell my 20 year-old self to wait for love. I married the first time at 21.
Nina: It was too soon. When I married the second time, in my late 20s, I was ready. I have a great partner, a wonderful daughter, that makes this job easier. And I'm excited. This is a great opportunity. In Korean, opportunity is a dangerous chance. I'm taking a chance.
Yvette: I wanted the show to be on this stage. It means something to have a show mainstage at the Factory Theatre. This is the home of the Canadian playwright!
A crowd is waiting outside the door to meet the director and writer before the Sunday night preview. Our time is up.
On the walk home, in the fading light of an early spring evening, I think about power, and not the kind you miss in a black-out. I wonder how someone decides they're ready to embrace it.
Aquino has been handed the stage of the Factory Theatre, a powerful role indeed, and one few women ever get a shot at. She has the blessing of her mentor, and former boss, Yvette Nolan. The community is waiting, to see what she does with her dangerous chance.
THE UNPLUGGING, by Yvette Nolan, co-produced by Native Earth Performing Arts and the Factory Theatre, directed by Nina Lee Aquino and starring Diana Belshaw and Allegra Fulton, and introducing Umed Amin, at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, opens Thursday, March 19th and runs until April 5th. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 pm and at 2:00 pm Sundays (pay what you can). For tickets, call (416) 504 9971.