Updated: Apr 23, 2022
By Pamela Ferla
A dozen local actors arrived at Mercury Bay Area School on Sunday, 10 April excited and hoping they would remember their lines. They went home inspired and with renewed passion for their craft, thanks to a drama workshop run by leading New Zealand actress and New Zealander of the Year in 2020, Jennifer Ward-Lealand.
Whitianga’s Offbeat Theatre Company was well represented at the workshop, which included a car full of enthusiasts from Tairua. The six pairs of actors took turns to play out their roles and received many gems of practical advice to enhance their performance. Those taking part felt privileged to learn from such an experienced actress. Jennifer has been made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to theatre and the community.
Jennifer’s television and web appearances include Full Frontal, Xena: Warrior Princess, The Almighty Johnsons and Dirty Laundry. She received outstanding reviews for her lead role in the film Vermillion. As well as acting, singing and directing, she is a drama teacher and intimacy coordinator (putting a professional process in place for intimate scenes).
Because of Covid restrictions, the workshop was postponed three times since planning started last July. “But it was more than worth the wait,” said Offbeat Theatre chair, Sharyn Morcom. “Jennifer was brilliant, the workshop was beautifully streamlined and she helped us to learn from watching as well as participating. It really couldn’t have been any better in my mind. We were truly privileged to be able to bring a professional of Jennifer’s calibre into our wee community.”
Sharyn said those taking part were buzzing and full of inspiration to take their new skills to the stage. “I want to express Offbeat Theatre’s deep gratitude to Thames-Coromandel District Council and the Mercury Bay Community Board for the grant they allocated us to help the workshop happen,” she said “We are also grateful to Mercury Bay Area School for allowing us to use their drama room.”
The New Zealander of the Year award acknowledged Jennifer as a role model for all New Zealanders through her leadership and dedication. Her commitment to the performing arts in New Zealand includes being president of Equity New Zealand, a trust board member of the Actors Benevolent Fund, and patron of the Auckland Performing Arts Centre and Theatre New Zealand. Her work in championing Te Reo in the performing arts was recognised with her being gifted the name Te Atamira, The Stage, by the late Dr Te Wharehuia Melroy and Sir Timoti Karetu.
Jennifer told The Mercury Bay Informer how she started her acting career. “The arts have been an important part of my family,” she said. “When I was seven, my dad took me to rehearsals for the Greek tragedy, Oedipus, and I knew then that this was where I belonged. So I told mum I was going to be an actor.”
Pondering her favourite roles, Jennifer picks playing screen goddess Marlene Dietrich as one of them. “But my favourite type of role is black comedy that takes me everywhere emotionally and uses every part of my craft,” she said. “It’s a bit like surgery - you have to be on top of your timing. It’s very satisfying.”
Jennifer acknowledged the effect that Covid has had on those involved in the arts. “It has been an incredibly tough time, but actors are resilient creatures because there’s a lot of rejection in the industry. The statistics are not good in our industry, but we are trying to turn them around. And one measure that is off the chart is our hope.”
As a school leaver Jennifer toured New Zealand with a community theatre group. Now she tours as a teacher of her craft. “I have toured a lot to small community theatres around the country and I love it,” she said. “There’s a hunger to learn and it’s heart-warming that people are interested and want to up their skills. If I can help people by showing them practical craft skills, then it’s very rewarding.”
And what about tips to help actors remember their lines? “In the end it’s just about doing the hard work,” Jennifer said. “Personally, I sit up at night and work on my lines and I find that they stay in my head more. And it’s a question of use it or lose it.”
Jennifer and her husband, actor Michael Hurst, have two sons. They follow the family tradition, working in music and film production.
Sharyn Morcom says the Offbeat Theatre Company has had a hard time bringing anything to stage for several years because of problems around COVID-19, as well as a lack of security around a venue to perform in. “However, the venue issue is one that we are actively working on in conjunction with TCDC,” she said. “Any support from the community would be most welcome.”
Anyone interested in helping Mercury Bay develop a home for visual and performance arts is invited to phone or text Sharyn on (027) 610 5933.
Caption: Leading New Zealand actress, Jennifer Ward Lealand (second from the left), encourages local actors Kate Neilsen (left) and Rachael Mayne during a drama workshop in Whitianga on Sunday, 10 April. The other workshop participants are observing.