Saturday, October 6, 2012

Interview: Nina Lee Aquino

Open your hearts and your imagination.
by Jasmine Chen

Nina Lee Aquino is a director, dramaturge and playwright. She is the Artistic Director of Cahoots Theatre Company and half of the interim Artistic Team of the Factory Theatre. Her play Every Letter Counts opens January 26, 2013 in the Factory Mainspace.

CHARPO: What was the initial impulse to write this story? 

AQUINO: The inspiration really came after seeing Marjorie Chan's The Madness of the Square. I saw it here at the Factory Mainspace, but I followed it through its development. I really connected to the piece, in that it spoke of revolution set in a young people's world. It really resonated with me, as someone who was brought up in revolution. The message of the power of action to change a nation - those University students wanting freedom and basic rights, fighting for their lives - really resonated with my experiences, specifically in the Philippines, and what my last name means to me. That got the ball rolling and I took it from there.

As a playwright I've learned that it is necessary to surround myself with strong people that really get my piece and will protect it.

CHARPO: Did you find you needed to do a lot of research? 

AQUINO: Yes, I had to. I knew the bare bones, I knew what I knew from the inside... which was not a lot because, when the revolution happened -- and the events prior to that -- I was barely 10 years old. During the time of Aquino's assassination and the People Power Revolution (when his widow took Presidency) I really didn't know the impact that it had on a larger scale. I just knew that big things were happening. Back then the personal and political were disconnected for me. So, in my research, the biggest surprise came from realizing the impact of Aquino's legacy. I did a lot of reading, buying books from the Philippine library, I hoarded as much as I could! I watched many documentaries to try and find the underbelly and back-room-information that I wouldn't have been able to find when I was so much younger. It definitely fleshed out the world for me and the character I had written, Ninoy Aquino, in my play. I think you'll get the two points of view: that six year old kid, and that 35 year old woman who's thinking, “OH, so that's what you meant when you told me that back then.” 

CHARPO: As a director, you have worked with many new plays and helped them in their development. As a playwright, what do you need from the director when developing your own work?

AQUINO: Direction! I'm one of those people who can easily give up hats. The problem comes when people say: “Oh, you're a director, too. What do you think?” and I say: “I don't know!” I can completely disconnect from it. As a playwright, I'm very open... sometimes too much so. I'm still learning how to say [to an actor]: “No, actually, make it work.” I'm lucky to have a strong dramaturg and director in Nigel, who will fight for the piece and protect the work, even from me. That is the role of a dramaturg/director; to protect the goodness of the piece from the playwright who may make compromises. When I am a director/dramaturg, I am the same way. As a playwright I've learned that it is necessary to surround myself with strong people that really get my piece and will protect it. 

CHARPO: Was Nigel Shawn Williams an obvious choice as director?

AQUINO: I think so. I love his work. He's a thoughtful director - a very sensitive director - especially for new work, his track record is impeccable. He's also an amazing performer! Because my piece is very character driven, I'm confident that he will be able to get the best performances out of the play. I know that this will be a challenge for him, because he has been craving more directorial pieces that challenge his visual sensibilities. Because I am a director and was partly brought up in musical theatre, there are some very directorial aspects; visual challenges that Nigel really wants to tackle. It was a very obvious choice. And, first and foremost for me, I wanted it to be directed by a director of colour, if possible. I'm very happy.

CHARPO: How has this piece evolved since the first workshops of it?

AQUINO: It started with Cahoots, where I was the playwright-in-residence, working with Jovanni Sy. It evolved from having a strong Scrabble element; wherein Ninoy uses the game to teach his niece, who has a learning disability, the power of words. I think when I wrote it the first time there was a great emphasis on Scrabble being a big metaphor, and then I tried to tie it up with specific Philippine political events. It kind of worked, but ultimately it didn't. The most current draft that I have, which will hopefully be the production draft, has realized that it is really Bunny's story, the central character in the play. We're seeing Ninoy through Bunny's eyes. It was never my intention to put out a bio drama on him. It was always my intention to give an audience a slice of what one chance meeting can do; how it can have a domino effect, globally. Once again there's this personal-political relationship that I wanted to highlight. 

CHARPO: Who inspires you?

AQUINO: It's not so much specific people, but things that happen in the community that remind me why I'm here; certain events that reaffirm my purpose in this community and keep me going. When great things happen for the culturally diverse theatre community, it confirms for me that what I do -- as small as it is -- is really worth it. 

I have mentors, for sure, who give me a re-charge of energy when I feel like the world is ending and I feel useless. But, in general, I think that despite the small crises that happen in our communities, it is the successes – like the building of the Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre (Native Earth's new home where fu-GEN and Cahoots are resident companies), these are huge things that make me think: 'I could die tomorrow and be happy.' We're all working together to empower and strengthen our voice. I'd like to think that in very small ways I am part of that process. 

What I have learned from writing this, is the power of words as a tool for transformation. 

CHARPO: How has becoming a mother changed your perspective on work?

AQUINO: If anything, it has raised the stakes. It really makes me more rigorous in the way that I work, and in the way that I want to leave the legacy of my work. Even if my daughter doesn't become an artist, what she will inherit from me is passion, empowerment and having a voice in whatever community she decides to work in. So I need to practice that every day. She needs to see that; I am her first role model. When I work, I'm reminded of that. When she wants to see a rehearsal, that is part of her training: Ok, I need you to see your mom as this hardworking, determined individual, a fireball who'll never stop. 

CHARPO: Lastly, is there anything that you would like to say to your audiences before they see your play?

AQUINO: Open your hearts and your imagination. This isn't an autobiographical play, nor is it a bio drama of a national hero in the Philippines. It is deeper than that. What I have learned from writing this, is the power of words as a tool for transformation. Ninoy Aquino was in politics and he did that. Even though I'm not in politics, and am not going to be,  I am blessed to have inherited that gift because I am in an industry where words still have power. I work in new play development and it's all about bringing the words to the stage. I'm a firm believer that theatre can transform, and that it can change the world. Whatever people see, I hope that it changes something in them in the end. 

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