Jennifer Ward-Lealand: Jack of all trades

Jennifer Ward-Lealan
Legendary actress, director and singer Jennifer Ward-Lealand has been named New Zealander of the Year for 2020. This queen of Kiwi stage spoke to MiNDFOOD about her colourful career and how her passion for theatre developed.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand is clearly no stranger to the stage, having starred in more than 100 plays throughout her lengthy career. “It feels quite dangerous, that’s what I love about theatre,” says Ward-Lealand. “We’re all there in the same room.”

Her rise to fame

Her love for theatre began when she was just seven years old and her father brought her along to a play rehearsal. “I had an epiphany that this was where I belong,” she recalls. “I went home and told Mum I was going to be an actor.”

Fast-forward 10 years, and Ward-Lealand found herself working as an usher and waitress at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre. It was during her time here that Auckland’s prestigious company Theatre Corporate brought a production to the theatre, inspiring her to enrol in an acting diploma.

After completing her studies, she joined the company as a full-time actor, which she says was an invaluable experience. “My craft was really honed,” she says, adding that she feels lucky to have been part of the last generation of workers in a local company, where actors were guaranteed a year of work and privy to unique learning opportunities. “There was a sense of community,” she adds, remembering how the staff would spend their evenings socialising on the vibrant Karangahape Road. When Theatre Corporate closed its doors in 1986, it marked the end of an era in the New Zealand theatre industry.

A passion for theatre

Ward-Lealand has also made her mark on both the big and small screens, starring in films including The Footstep Man (1992), Fracture (2004) and Vermilion (2018), in which she plays the protagonist. Ward-Lealand has also acted in a wealth of television shows, from Full Frontal and Shortland Street to the more recent comedy The Adventures of Suzy Boon. Yet theatre remains her true passion. “I love the journey you get to make in the theatre,” she explains, describing it as a kind of spiritual home.

Ward-Lealand cites Edward Albee’s 2005 production of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, in which she starred with husband Michael Hurst, as one of the favourite performances of her career. Another memorable moment was her cabaret show Falling in Love Again, which she toured here and in Australia.

She also enjoys time behind the camera, and has directed a number of productions. She tries to approach directing as an audience member, asking herself if a scene would interest her or not while fine-tuning the process. She loves the challenge of keeping the audience captivated. “It’s easy to get the audience’s attention, the trick is keeping them there,” she explains. “That’s where the craft comes in.”



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