One could say Eponine Lee was born into the creative arts.

Her mother, Nina Lee Aquino (currently artistic director at Factory Theatre, moving to the same role at the National Art Centre’s English Theatre in September), went into labour while rehearsing, and Lee spent much of her childhood in the theatre, acting in her first play — carried away by the crest of a wave by David Yee at the Tarragon Theatre — when she was five or six years old.

“I've always been raised near and with theatre,” the 15-year-old actor and musician said. “I loved meeting new people, getting to know people through the rehearsal process and the whole magic behind it, with the stories it can tell and the beautiful art that it is. It drew my attention and made me feel excited.”

Lee has ramped up her acting over the last three years, including playing Juliet in R+J, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s tragic story of teenage love at last summer’s Stratford Festival. (She also composed original music for the project.)

“I'm always the youngest person in the room,” she said of her experiences in the performing arts, noting the exception of her long-running role in A Christmas Carol at Soulpepper Theatre.

“It's a little intimidating at first. Most of the time, I don’t know anybody, and obviously there are doubts and insecurities, but as the rehearsal process begins and I get to warm up and get into my work, it becomes really fun, and I feel special,” she said.

Eponine Lee and her father Richard during a headshot session. Photo by Dahlia Katz Photography

For other young people interested in performing but not yet engaged in it, Lee’s advice is to just say yes.

“The biggest thing that I would say is to just ask around for any opportunities you can get and to say yes,” she said. “Say yes to even the smallest of roles with the smallest of theatre companies.

A 15-year-old from a Toronto theatre family who has already played Juliet in Shakespeare’s tragic love story at the Stratford Festival, Eponine Lee is forging an impressive creative career while balancing the demands of high school.

“You just have to do it, you just have to go through it and grit your teeth through all the nerve-wracking things that come and know and believe that you take up space in that room and you matter,” she added.

The younger Lee has also worked on multiple projects with her father, actor, producer and sound designer Richard Lee, including her latest role in a short film directed by Romeo Candido for an NBA films for fans project.

An original song Eponine Lee composed for the production of Romeo and Juliet in which she starred last summer.

“I am most proud of her determination, her generosity of spirit, her kind and compassionate soul, which I think feeds into her art as well,” her father said.

Lee’s crowded resumé has caught the attention of the Toronto Arts Foundation, which last week named her a finalist for its award for a breakthrough artist, which will be announced in late April.

The precocious talent said that she got a guitar early on the pandemic and that music and songwriting had helped her work through the tumult of the last few years.

“With my guitar and my songbook, I suppose, I was able to sort out some pretty mind-boggling and life-changing questions, whether that was about who I am or me being connected with my Asian heritage and roots, and also trying to find out what my sexuality is and who I love. Pretty big things in my life that music helped me not just figure out but process and understand what it is,” she said.

That “really helped drive my motivation to make new songs and also just blurt out whatever I was feeling, because yeah, it's a pretty overwhelming, really hard experience to be a teenager in the middle of a pandemic,” Lee said.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer