Nina Lee Aquino says Factory Theatre is alive and well.
EVERY LETTER COUNTS by Nina Lee Aquino, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams, with Aquino, Jon de Leon, Anthony Malarky and Earl Pastko. Presented by Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews begin Saturday (January 26), opens January 31 and runs to February 24, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm (except January 27 at 7 pm). $32-$42, Sunday pwyc, previews $22. 416-504-9971. See listing.
It's not easy having a famous relative.
Family expectations are demanding enough, but the situation is more intense when others look for you to live up to a well-known name.
Theatre artist Nina Lee Aquino has coped with that for years. Niece of iconic Filipino politician Benigno Aquino, she's made a name for herself as a director and head of such companies as fu-GEN and Cahoots. Earlier, she impressed audiences as co-writer and performer in Miss Orient(ed), a satire of beauty contests and racism.
In Every Letter Counts, she returns to writing and acting in a tale inspired by her own history.
"It's not a documentary, though," says Aquino on a rehearsal break. "Initially, I wanted to commemorate this great man, but with the help of people like dramaturg Iris Turcott and director Nigel Shawn Williams, the focus has shifted.
"Now the heart of the story is my history and what my name means to me, with all the burdens and baggage the name carries. The play is now about legacy and how the central character, Bunny, defines her life."
The play opens with the adult Bunny finding herself in the Aquino Museum in the Philippines, where memories flood back. Central are the four days in 1983 she spent as a child with her Uncle Ninoy in Texas, shortly before he returned to Manila and an assassin's bullet.
"Right off the top, she's there for a reason, searching for something she's not quite sure of. Bunny has to choose what she needs to give her life meaning, and it's as if in the museum she finds bread crumbs from the past that will help. Ninoy is her guide, unfolding memories and helping his niece find her own voice."
Key to the tale is the game of Scrabble, which Ninoy teaches to an initially reluctant Bunny, who has dyslexia.
"It's a learning tool, and through it Ninoy gifts Bunny with words. The tiles in the game aren't just something to play with, but also something to discover; they're a physical manifestation of what words can be.
"She learns that what's important is not just the size of the words but how you use them, which becomes a metaphor for life. Sometimes, says Ninoy, you just have to accept the shitty tiles you've drawn out of the bag and deal with them."
Every Letter Counts opens the season at Factory, after a tumultuous summer that saw the firing of Ken Gass as artistic director. Aquino and Williams, who make up the interim artistic team, look forward to a revitalized four-show playbill.
"Factory is alive and well," nods Aquino. "Two of the shows are in rehearsals in the building. What's important is that art is still being made here; the company has movement and momentum for the future."
She's understandably focused on Every Letter Counts, but Aquino is also thinking about the shows she's directing for fu-GEN, Tarragon and Cahoots over the next four months.
"Right now it's pretty intense just being back onstage as an actor. I haven't performed since 2005. But I trust Nigel and Iris, who are generous but firm and protective guardians of the play and the cast.
"It's also a chance to do a little internship in directing, since what I'll learn from Nigel I'll take into my later work."