Nina Lee Aquino (left) has programmed works by David Yee, Suvendrini Lena and other playwrights of colour.
Take Factory Theatre's season title, Beyond The Great White North, seriously.
The company's artistic director, Nina Lee Aquino, has scheduled what, for Toronto, is an impressive season of six plays by playwrights of colour, some well known and others up-and-comers.
The season opens Saturday (October 29) with David Yee's acquiesce, in which an Asian-Canadian novelist confronts his heritage and relationship with his father when he returns to Hong Kong for his parent's funeral.
Also on the slate: Suvendrini Lena's The Enchanted Loom. Running later are Vancouver writer Tetsuro Shigematsu's Empire Of The Son, Anusree Roy's Little Pretty And The Exceptional and remounts of Trey Anthony's How Black Mothers Say I Love You and Leon Aureus's Banana Boys.
The word "groundbreaking" has been used to describe the program, but Aquino doesn't totally accept the designation.
"I've always had this concern," says Aquino, who's directing Yee's play, "whether I'm at the helm of a company or hired by another theatre to work on a production."
Director, dramaturge and playwright, Aquino was founding artistic director at fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre and later ran Cahoots Theatre. She says that "the kind of inclusivity reflected in the Factory season is part of my roots as a Filipina-Canadian theatre artist."
Last year's Naked season at Factory - so called because shows were mounted with minimal production values so that artists and audiences could concentrate on the writers' words - reflected a similar philosophy. Though devoted to Canadian classics, productions highlighted artists of colour, most strikingly in director Ravi Jain's Dora-winning staging of David French's mainstay drama Salt-Water Moon, featuring Kawa Ada and Mayko Nguyen.
"What I'm doing is putting together a season that tells a much larger story," reflects Aquino. "I always ask myself what I and Factory have to explore. What's exciting about this group of plays is that it tells something about the world we live in and ourselves as Canadians.
"The season is only a page, a chapter of a richer, larger book we call Canada."
Yee, current artistic director of fu-GEN, which co-produces acquiesce with Factory, has worked with Aquino for 15 years. Winner of the Governor General's Award for carried away on the crest of a wave, which Aquino helmed, he sees the focus on Factory's programming as a frustrating Catch-22.
He's not sure that diversity should be the lone criterion that gets theatre lovers' juices going.
"It's important to program diversely, and we don't want to ignore that," says the writer. "What troubles me is positioning that idea as the only source of discussion and inspiration. I want it to be about the work, not the diversity."
Lena, a neurologist whose The Enchanted Loom (a co-pro with Cahoots Theatre that's directed by Marjorie Chan) looks at a Tamil family in Canada living with scars from the Sri Lankan civil war, is tired of having to fight or explain why these stories have to be told.
"These stories are the voices, the fabric of our city, and in presenting them Factory offers a pathway for understanding and solving some of the problems we all face living here."
Just as important for Aquino is pointing out that her programming isn't definitive. She knows that the slate doesn't represent all communities.
"It's just the start of a dialogue, as if I were pushing a dish to the centre of the table and asking artists and audience to sample different tastes. I'm always looking for work that offers an intersection, a collision of ideas. I'm always attracted to scripts where the lines blur, where the safety net is cut. That's where real dialogue can happen."
I've often seen her at productions by and featuring artists of colour, looking for new talent.
But Aquino knows she can't open every door with only six plays per season. Even a 13-play slate wouldn't cut it. There are so many voices that need to be heard on our stages, she stresses, narratives that need to be told.
"We always need to define and keep redefining what our idea of excellence is. The excuse I hear from other companies about not programming works by a playwright of colour is that they want one that meets their standard of a good Canadian play.
"'What's that?' I ask. What's our measuring stick of excellence?
"Even I sometimes say that a script is not my cup of tea. But I know I have to widen my view, think about extending that metaphoric shelf to include that cup of tea in my cabinet.
"And in the process, I hope to be building Canadian classics of the future."
For tickets, go to factorytheatre.ca.