Kiwibank New Zealander of the year Jennifer Ward-Lealand and prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: NZer of the Year

Jennifer Ward-Lealand on advocacy and the future of theatre in New Zealand

Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s dedication to acting, directing and te ao Māori saw her named the 2020 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year at a special dinner in Auckland last night. Alice Webb-Liddall speaks to her about how she hopes to nurture the future of the craft that has given her so much. 

Back in the 80s and 90s, the world of acting in New Zealand looked very different to how it does now. Theatre companies have all but faded from existence, and with them the opportunities for young actors to develop their craft in those supportive, creative environments. 

Jennifer Ward-Lealand is one of the lucky ones, who got in before the rise of social media. She honed her skills with show after show for companies like The Front Lawn before she set out on her freelance acting and directing career. 

Yesterday she was crowned the 2020 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, and as well as advocating for te reo Māori, actor equity and intimacy coordination, she’s committed to creating a theatre culture that continues to nourish young performers.

Ward-Lealand was only 16 when she landed her first recurring role as Jan in Close to Home, a New Zealand soap that ran for eight years in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But it was her role in ‘Danny and Raewyn’, an episode of the About Face series, that won her a GOFTA award for best actress and catapulted her into a now 43-year career. 

In the 2019 New Year’s Honours list, Ward-Lealand was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) for services to film, theatre and television, and it’s not hard to see why. Ward-Lealand wears more hats now than many would in their lifetimes. She’s a patron of the Q Theatre and Theatre New Zealand, a trust board member of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, the founding board member of the Watershed Theatre and co-founder of The Actors’ Program and The Large Group, and for 12 years has been the director of actors’ union Equity New Zealand, as well as directing and acting.

With about 1000 current members, Equity New Zealand is the fastest-growing branch of the MEAA Australasian actors’ alliance. For Ward-Lealand, this is significant in a sector that’s traditionally been hard to unionise. 

“I think fundamentally what has changed is that we’ve built a union from freelancers, from contractors. That is atypical. Most unions are built around collective bargaining and you are generally an employee… to be able to organise that group means you have to build community, and building community is huge for me.”

Building this community includes hosting panel discussions and wellness days, and ensuring actors are working in environments that nourish and support their development. One of the strategies Ward-Lealand is most passionate about is her role as an intimacy coordinator, a relatively new position in the New Zealand acting scene.

Studies show actors are generally more vulnerable to mental health problems than other professions, and Ward-Lealand wants to make sure New Zealand actors are getting the support they need. Especially during complicated and emotional performances. 

The role of intimacy coordinator was established to help performers during intimate scenes, and she started her training in 2018. 

“It basically puts in place a process where you break down a scene as you would a stunt, but of course you’re adding all the emotional beats in it as well.”

Now with level three coordinator accreditation, she runs workshops on intimacy for directors and actors around New Zealand. And the response has proved the need for the role at all levels of theatre.

“I teach at Howick Little Theatre once or twice a year. They’ve been the first community theatre to have intimacy workshops, and now in that amateur world they are utilising that stuff. It’s not just professional actors who will be facing intimate scenes, so [this is about] the health of the actor at whatever stage they’re at.”

For young actors especially, some intimate scenes can be daunting, scary and even triggering if they’re not handled with care. 

“It’s not in any way less spontaneous, like ‘oh, if we get [an intimacy coordinator] in it’s going to lose its spontaneity,’ but that spontaneity sometimes comes at a cost to the actors… at the heart of it is consent.”

Jennifer Ward-Lealand in rehearsal for The Book of Everything. Photo: Jinki Cambronero

Despite not having spent any significant time out of work over the past 40 years, Ward-Lealand admits there was a point in her 30s where she felt as though her time in the spotlight must be coming to an end. 

“In my 30s I talked myself into the fact that somehow my career must be over, like when people in their 20s say ‘I’m nearly too late to go to America,’ and I think they’d started playing this little soundtrack that was signifying that your younger roles were over and you probably won’t do anything for a while.”

But this thinking didn’t last long. The roles she’s had since are testament to her commitment to the craft, which she says has become somewhat of a ‘dirty’ word in the acting community. She disagrees that it’s a bad thing. 

“It’s what can allow the actor to perform six, eight, nine times a week and give 100% performance. That’s craft. You can’t just feel it on the night and then the next night you don’t feel it. The audience didn’t pay for that, they pay for you to be real and you owe it to them. That’s showing your craft.”

While the past 40 years have been filled with time on stage, screen and in the director’s seat, Ward-Lealand doesn’t think there will ever be a point she’ll stop learning to hone her craft. 

“There’s this idea that you get to a certain point and somehow you know it all and you’ve done everything, but if I wasn’t being challenged each time and finding a buzz in that then I may as well be out of the business. I still want a director to pull the best out of me, or perhaps the things that I didn’t know were there yet.”

And she brings that attitude to directing as well. It’s about drawing the craft out of her actors, and she thinks it should be the responsibility of industry veterans to be passing on their knowledge to younger generations of talent. 

“My acting never really goes away and that’s really useful because if there’s something an actor isn’t getting, I can show or teach them a new rhythm just by doing it myself… it’s not that they have to copy me, but they might have to model me for a while until it becomes whakatangata whenua.”

Over the past 11 years Ward-Lealand has begun a new journey into the craft of te ao Māori alongside her stage craft. She’s attended various kura reo, completed immersion courses and become fluent in the reo. Alongside that, she says, comes an intrinsic connection to the natural world, and that’s helped her to understand herself better than ever before. 

“I was in an immersion course and we had to present all our work in te reo Māori and one section was your whakapapa. I sort of went ‘I don’t have a waka…’ and my teacher said ‘where did your ancestors come from?’ and I said ‘Germany and all over the place’ and she said ‘and how did they get here?’ and I said ‘by boat’ and she said ‘OK, go and find out about it.’

“I did a road trip right up north where my missionary family arrived in 1823 and I walked on the boards of the mission house where they lived. I followed the footsteps of my ancestors and it was a very profound connection for me… That was where I started thinking, ‘I’m part of something bigger’.”

And that thought reached a new point in 2017 when she was gifted a Māori name by Sir Timoti Karetu and the late Professor Te Wharehuia Milroy: Te Atamira. It means “the stage” and she considers it not only a huge honour, but a responsibility to use the stage as a platform for te reo advocacy.

“I’m on the stage so that’s where I champion te reo Māori, so kua takoto te mānuka – that means the mānuka has been laid down, like when you arrive at a marae and the mānuka gets laid down as a challenge… it’s been laid down to me and I’ll choose to pick that up.”

And as with her acting work, Ward-Lealand knows her opportunities to learn about te reo and tikanga Māori are never over. To her, that’s the beauty of what she does. 

“I’ll be a student for the rest of my life – don’t think I suddenly know everything, e kao, but I’ve seen that beautiful maunga of te reo and the view is extraordinary.”

She brings this passion for te reo Māori into each piece of work she does, using tikanga to create a theatre environment that both supports the actors and the kaupapa of their work.

“It is in every way that I start a production. It is how we gather at the beginning, how we acknowledge each other, how we look after the spiritual needs of the kaupapa and of the group that is driving that kaupapa.”

The spiritual needs of all the actors she mentors are a priority for Ward-Lealand. She’s committed to making a space in the industry for young actors to be supported, valued and taught the same way she was back in the 80s. 

Because while she can see that the space to create work is growing online, she’s concerned actors aren’t getting the same training that was common with theatre companies. 

“I think it’s a really positive thing that there’s been a lot of extraordinary work being created, but I think the opportunity to practise one’s craft over a sustained period of time has lessened… I actually feel really worried about it because if people go and see plays that aren’t well crafted, or actors that aren’t well crafted, then they start thinking that’s what theatre is, and then theatre gets a bad name.”

In an ideal world, Ward-Lealand would have a company of her own, training for 10-12 months and producing a series of plays to give these young performers as much experience as possible. 

“So people can learn from it in the way that I learnt from my elders. It’s where I learnt etiquette of the theatre. Sometimes my heart chokes up a bit from the craft, because it is a craft and you only realise after a few years that you know what to do on the stage, how to shape up on the stage, you know how to breathe to introduce a new thought.”

But most of all, she wants to make sure that those who’ve chosen to pursue a career in the performing arts can feel proud of their profession.

“It’s all about that, everything I do. The intimacy coordination, the teaching my work with singers, my work with choirs, everything is about honouring the craft. That’s my pou.”

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