Ad-Lib with Jennifer Ward-Lealand
Jennifer and Anna Jullienne in ‘Two Ladies. Photo: Michael Smith.
At the age of seven, Jennifer Ward-Lealand made her stage debut by chance. Some 51 years later, she still loves her craft.
Back then, dad Conrad Lealand took Jennifer to a play he was starring in – Lucius Seneca’s Oedipus – and, as it turned out, they needed children for the show. By chance, she got her first taste of acting.
“I walked into that rehearsal room and had an epiphany that this was where I belonged,” Jennifer says with conviction. “I never swayed from that.”
She thanks her father for introducing her to acting and says he was “really tickled” that his daughter pursued one of his interests as a career.
For Jennifer, acting is a chance to explore the complexity of what it is to be human.
“When you show an audience that complexity in an authentic way, using everything that you are, then they connect and it creates true communion,” she imparts.
“That gives rise to one of the most important things, and that is empathy.
“If we can see ourselves in someone else's story, then that gives rise to empathy, and that’s a quality I think the world needs more of.”
Jennifer has performed in Tauranga with touring plays for the last 17 years, and is always pleased to come back.
“I love how much the arts are important to the people in Tauranga.”
She says being a professional actor for more than 40 years requires versatility, and it’s something she now instils in her students at The Actors’ Program – a drama school in Auckland.
“I’m always talking to young students about that need to try and expand our skills in many, many ways in order to be able to carve out a career.”
The 58-year-old sings, does voice overs, narration, MCing, directing, producing, stage and screen acting and teaching.
“Versatility is the nature of the beast,” she says.
A more recent string to her bow is intimacy coordination, which brings a professional process to any scenes of an intimate nature.
“Having a coordinator prevents problematic experiences for actors and improves the story telling,” adds Jennifer.
She is also an advocate for intimacy coordination, and would like to see it introduced at all training institutions in Aotearoa.
Passionate about ensuring the future of the craft, she’s one of the founders of The Actors’ Program, a drama school that offers a one-year intensive course.
The school currently fills the gap for a year-long course with no upper age limit.
Her advice to anyone wanting to act professionally is to do some training, because there often isn’t an opportunity to join a theatre company for more than one play and learn on the ground from experienced actors.
“These days, you don't get a chance to be in a company, so your drama school is your company,” she explains. “That's a really valuable thing to be part of because you learn to work as an ensemble.
“You’re with your tribe, and those people will be with you for the rest of your life.”
Jennifer is still working with people that she worked with 40 years ago.
Throughout her career she has had some “really beautiful screen experiences” and she’s excited about directing her first short film in a few months, but says the stage is always her home.
“There's nothing like stepping out onto the stage in front of an audience, because you really don't know what's going to happen.
“I quite like the danger of that.
“I’d never want to be complacent before I step on the stage.”
Some of her favourite roles have been in the black comedies ‘August: Osage County’ and ‘The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?’.
Jennifer loves the depth of drama black comedies offer, but in those depths “things are funny in the blackest way”.
“It’s so satisfying to play, because as an actor you get to use all of your craft.
“You have to have exquisite timing to make comedy really sing, and yet in the midst of what can be the depths of despair.”
After her father’s passing 18 months ago Jennifer discovered his archives. He has kept every review and programme from the plays he’s been in, including Oedipus.
Their surname is spelt incorrectly in the programme, with a Y after the first E instead of an A, and it has continued for her whole career.
“Thus it’s continued for 40 years, the misspelling. It’s Lealand, like New Zealand,” she remarks with just a hint of frustration.
While the misspelling is a minor vexation, her career to-date is a source of immense joy.
“Even though I do a lot of different things, it’s all from the same source and that is a love of connection with an audience, a love of creating something singular, of communion, of humanity.
“The process of creating the work and the thrill of being in the moment with another actor on stage - that's my buzz.”